The spread of the latest Coronavirus is giving humanity an unpleasant lesson in exactly how quickly micro-organisms can move acros the world and reproduce in our age of ubiquitous air travel and global free trade. Farmers have been confronting this reality for decades now in the form of invasive pest and weed species as well as viral and bacterial diseases.
Late last month, I received an email from the nursery that grows all of our tomato transplants along with an attached update from the University of California about a new tomato disease that I had never heard of. Called Tomato Brown Rugose Virus (TBRV), it originated in Jordan, quickly spread to Israel and then Mexico. Last year it was found in a single greenhouse in Southern California.
The TBRV disease is a sneaky one. It has the ability to infect seeds, but it does not present itself on tomato plants while they are growing. It waits until the fruit have formed and are ripening before it reveals itself. Tomatoes from infected plants tend to rot just before they are fully ripe. Since 99% of commercial tomatoes are harvested before this point, the symptoms are not noticed until the fruit has arrived at the store — or even after it has been purchased by shoppers. Despite showing few symptoms before this point, sick plants can infect other plants at any point during their growth — most often transmitted by the hands of workers tending the vines. There is no cure.
For good reason, everyone involved in producing tomatoes is terrified of the disease. The USDA has imposed a quarantine on tomatoes and seed from areas where it has been found. At the greenhouse in Southern California, the grower’s entire crop was destroyed to prevent further transmission.
The email from the nursery was to inform me that they would not be planting any tomato seed that had not been tested for the TRV and found to be virus-free. Unfortunately, I had already bought all the seed — from several different companies — and sent it to the nursery. The seed companies all informed me that the seed had not been tested, and that the labs equipped to do the test were now backed up for months. There was no chance of getting any “approved” tomato seed in time to do our sowings.
Tomatoes are Terra Firma’s lifeblood and biggest selling crop by a large margin. We don’t have our own greenhouses, so growing the plants ourselves was not an option. I called the senior management at the nursery and made a plea for them to give us a year to get compliant with the new testing regime. Luckily, we were not the only tomato growers who did so. They ended up backing down and decided to grow the plants for us with the untested seed — this year.
In retrospect and in light of what has been happening with the Corona virus, I wonder if we did not make a huge mistake. If some contaminated seed found itself into our fields, we would be the tomato grower equivalent of the people who travelled from Wuhan to other cities, inadvertently causing the spread and expansion of the virus. The short-term consequences of the containment measures seemed so severe at the time, but in reality they would be nothing compared to the spread of a devastating virus throughout one of the premier tomato-growing regions of the world. How many other farmers and nurseries made similarly expedient decisions this year, any one of which could ultimately be the one who brings the virus into our area?
Our first round of tomato plants from the nursery arrive on Thursday, and we’ll plant them hoping they are healthy and free of TBRV. But it’s a pretty good bet that somewhere in California, the virus will show up this summer just as the Covid 19 is now showing up in Europe and the Middle East.