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Let’s talk tomatoes

You may say "toe-may-toe", while I say "toe-ma-toe" or so the saying goes. As far as this versatile vitamin-rich fruit goes, most people either have a distinct love or hate of them. Whether you eat them whole, hidden on a pizza base or perhaps as tomato sauce added to your food, across the world tomatoes are part of most people’s everyday lives.

© Pixabay
Tomatoes, as small as they are, tell a tale about our complicated relationship with food.
The tomato source

Consider these simple beginnings: from just one tomato seed, a single plant will grow to produce 8kg of tomatoes in its lifetime. Amazing, right?

So just one seed equals 8kg tomatoes! And apparently the average South African eats 12kg a year - an average of one and half tomato plants a year.

Is this you? Are you a tomato lover like me?

I love tomatoes of all shapes, sizes and flavours - from the feeling of popping a crisp rosa tomato in my mouth or cutting up slices to add to my dishes and salads or a can of tomatoes in soup or sauces.

The tomato factor

Now, consider the many factors that contributed to our much loved or loathed tomatoes: the soil the plant grew in, the sunshine and nutrients it used, plus the water needed from growing stages through to getting onto your plate/ pizza/ salad.

The water used for one plant amounts to over 1 700 litres, which is the same as 21 bath tubs of water (calculated at 80 generous litres per bath). Now this is a lot to a Capetonian like me who dreams of languishing in a deep warm bath. So my tomatoes are highly water-intensive is what I realise!

Likewise, the energy used for those 8kg: it takes eight megajoules of energy per plant which includes production, transport and packaging. This is equivalent to powering a big TV for eight hours.

So that would be 12 hours of TV to power the same production of my annual tomato intake - which doesn’t seem like too much energy to me, or does it?

Although, if we think of all the tomatoes produced, in all the countries around the world, and all the people who eat tomatoes everyday - it all adds up. All the sunlight, the nutrients, fresh water and energy as well as the human labour and the love to sow seeds, care for, harvest and help get these tomatoes to our plates.

© Unsplash Dan DeAlmeida
An extraordinary amount of time and resources go into growing our food.
The full tomato effect

And what about all the other things we choose to eat every day? Whether other fruits and vegetables, fish or meat, chicken or eggs - a lot of hidden inputs, from water to energy, go into producing our food plus the carbon footprint depending on how far it travels to get to us.

So our food choices have an effect on the planet, just like our mode of moving around has an impact.

Collectively, all these impacts on the Earth add up. Kind of like all of our small spending amounts when going to the shops to buy food and other items. I know how fast these add up! And, much like spending our monthly budget, when the money runs out we go into a negative balance in our bank account - so it is with the available natural resources that we assume will always continue to be produced by our planet Earth.

© Shutterstock
A single tomato seed illustrates the hidden costs of the journey of our food:from farm to fork.
Into the red

When we spend more than we have - when we overshoot our budget - we go into deficit or debt.

It is exactly the same with what we take from the Earth - nature and its services and outputs are like a budget of available resources. Once we use it all up, we run out.

And did you know that we are already overshooting the Earth’s ‘natural budget’?

In fact, we do it every year! An under-publicised date is announced annually by the Global Footprint Network - not a day to celebrate, but perhaps somberly acknowledge - known as Earth Overshoot Day.

Much like debt, we go into natural resource debt: a state where the planet cannot keep up to produce as much as we are using, where we are taking more than nature can regenerate.

Last year Earth Overshoot Day was calculated at 2 August and 6 August in 2017. This year, for the first time, we’re into July: Earth Overshoot Day is set for 29 July 2019 to be exact.

Every last tomato

There is a saying that knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, but wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad. I think we know that we are taking more from nature than we should – plus dumping more waste into the environment than it can handle. But we need wisdom to make better choices where we can!

We should take action on the effects of our food choices and convenience-driven lifestyles. And we should value the inherent natural goodness in our fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as eating all that we grow and buy so as not to let good food go to waste.

Treasure your tomatoes

So even if you love to hate them, may you have a new found respect for all the hidden goodness that goes into growing our tomatoes and other fresh produce! For we can only use what we have, when we have it!

Sue Northam-Ras Photo
Sue Northam-Ras, WWF Communications Co-ordinator

Sue believes in making information valuable by writing and shaping content in a way that gives it meaning. She packages the environmental content for WWF South Africa.

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