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Canary tomato growers defy the odds

For a little more than a century, Canary tomatoes defined agriculture in the Canary Islands, as well as the economy, geography, demography, society and identity, transforming its landscape. Back then, more than 12,000 hectares were planted, creating over 30,000 jobs.

Also, the product's reputation contributed to the promotion of an archipelago where excellent fruits and vegetables could be produced during the harsh European winter, preceding the current promotion of the islands as a tourist destination.

However, at the beginning of the 21st century, everything changed. Some producers called this new situation "the perfect storm." And they were quite right, since the subsequent concatenation of disasters seems to respond to a conspiracy of strange interests to liquidate this sector for good.

Thus, in the 2000's, the appearance of destructive pests and viral diseases (TYLCV/TSWV/ToMV and ToCV) forced growers to renew the structures and switch to a different variety (from a highly productive and adapted one), which would entail extraordinary investments. This is not the responsibility of the producer, since phytosanitary controls are the responsibility of the Government of Spain.

The impact of the Iraq war in 2001 translated into an exorbitant increase in the price of oil, which took a toll on the inputs and transportation, leading to reduced consumption and considerably lower profit margins.

This same central government asked Canary producers in 2006 to return the compensations for transport of the year 2002, since, in their opinion, they had committed fraud and embezzlement. Not only did they have to refund the part of those who continued with the activity, but also that of those who had decided to abandon it.

All of this took place at a time when the preferential trade agreement between the EU and Morocco was signed, which together with the fierce competition from peninsular producers, whose production costs were about 35% lower than in the Canary Islands, caused the Island's producers to struggle, as they were left unable to compete in terms of prices.

The timid and tepid attempts of some Canary Islands administrations to try to mitigate the impact of this conspiracy were not enough and tomato producers started making announcements about the end of their activities. From the 3,500 hectares planted in early 2000, the acreage dropped to 1,410 hectares in only six years. Meanwhile, the production volume fell by around 200,000 tonnes, and the number of producers dropped from 900 to about 350, resulting in the destruction of approximately 12,000 jobs.

Then, the Government of the Canary Islands and the remaining producers decided to tackle the situation and reverse it with a strategic plan, but this was only fulfilled during the first two years of the five planned for its development.

A final element contributing to the already on-going cyclogenesis was the drastic reduction of the compensation for transport that has taken place from 2011; when this was already approaching 70%, it was cut to just 23.36%, driving Canary producers away from 46% of the Peninsula.

When it already looked like everything was lost, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Canary tomato growers, exempting them from all responsibility of having committed fraud. The State was condemned to repay the reimbursed funds, plus interest for late payment, but what Justice could no longer do was reverse the situation, because the damage had already been done.

In any case, the sector continues to be the main innovator in Canary agriculture. It collaborates in the protection of the landscape, its productions is certified under the most demanding regulations, the crop continues to be the one generating the most employment (6,500 jobs at the moment, with the main profile being women older than 45 years), it continues to serve as promotion for the Archipelago, it has its own logistics in Europe, and the tomatoes continue to be demanded, despite the fierce competition they face.

The fact is that this sector has been able to make adversity its greatest virtue. Canary tomato producers are determined to resist and persist, but also need the support of this society.

Canary tomatoes do have a future in this land and it is worth making an effort to make sure they achieve it, while praising and recognising the role of everyone involved in this sector. Neither the Canary Islands nor its agriculture can afford to see this sector disappear. It still has much to contribute.


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