Comment: Winning formula of the humble British tomato

All-year-round growing is boosting production.
All-year-round growing is boosting production.
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Eaten raw or cooked to perfection, the humble tomato is a quintessential addition to your plate, whatever the cuisine.

This is always brought to our attention thanks to a raft of activities organised for May’s annual British Tomato Week. It never fails to capture the imagination of Yorkshire growers who over the years have staged everything from ‘tomato spacehopper’ races to taking the House of Commons by storm dressed in their finest tomato suits.

Domestic tomato production amounts to about 75,000 metric tonnes per year - around a fifth of the total volume of tomatoes sold in England annually. This proportion rises to as much as 50 per cent during the summer.

Trends in tomato types have changed over the years, but currently, premium tomatoes such as tomatoes on the vine are driving growth in the market and now account for half of the UK’s tomato production area.

While your average gardener may think of tomatoes as a summer crop, over the years investment in glasshouse production and supplementary lighting means British tomatoes can be grown year-round, providing new out-of-season sales opportunities and the potential to reduce imports.

Perhaps then it isn’t surprising that production under glass is slowly increasing, with the British tomato industry now occupying around 200Ha of glass - twice the area of all the football pitches added together in the British professional leagues.

At a time when national per-capita consumption of fruit and veg has stalled at around three portions per day; and fruit, vegetable and potato purchases have fallen by 14, five and 20 per cent respectively since 2007, growth in the tomato sector must be a good sign.

With an annual cost of obesity to the NHS of £5.1bn per year, fruit and veg consumption is critical to tackling Type 2 Diabetes, and so the NFU is calling on government, retailers, processors and the food service industry to rally behind its recently-launched ‘Fit for the Future’ report, and develop and implement an action plan to increase the consumption of fruit and veg to the recommended five-a-day. Like all sectors, tomato production has a part to play.

Despite growth in popularity in the UK, consumers only eat around 6oz of fresh tomatoes per person per week - less than other European countries, especially those in the Mediterranean, so there’s still room for us to eat more and capitalise on the range of health benefits that tomatoes have to offer.

A good source of Vitamins A, C and E, natural plant pigments known as carotenoids - both beta-carotene and lycopene - and flavonoids, tomatoes also contain important minerals such as potassium, that has been linked to lowering blood pressure, and calcium, which is vital for healthy bones and teeth.

Lycopene has even been shown to help protect the body against heart disease and some forms of cancer so there’s much to be said for eating more of this lovely savoury fruit.

In short, there’s no wonder we have an ongoing love affair with home-grown tomatoes - they are able to offer us a fresh, delicious and, most importantly, nutritious ingredient that can also help improve our health. So maybe we should all spare a thought for the humble tomato next time we are out shopping and pop a few in our baskets.

Lucinda Douglas is York East County Adviser for the National Farmers’ Union.