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Tomatoes — and tomato-based products — are under threat due to drought

California's worst drought in more than 1,200 years has come for the country's tomatoes.

Ketchup, salsa, pizza sauce, marinara and more: Consumers may be seeing the price of these favorite staples change for the worse due to the availability of their main ingredient.

This month, tomato farmers are finding their yields in danger as California faces its worst drought in over a millennium. In fact, according to a recent study in the environmental journal Nature, the time period of 2000 to 2021 was the driest 22-year period since at least 1,200 years ago. That’s right — the last time the West Coast was this dry was in the year 800.

A Tomato Harvest As Supply Is Squeezed By Drought
Bruce Rominger, a tomato harvester, in his tomato field in Winters, California, on Aug. 12, 2022.David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images

California is responsible for 25% of the world’s output of tomatoes and leads the world in the production of processing tomatoes, the kind which are primarily canned, dehydrated and turned into paste, puree, pulp, ketchup, tomato sauce and tomato juice. This output then becomes the starring ingredient in many of the tomato-based foods you know and love in restaurants, supermarket items and more.

“We desperately need rain,” Mike Montna, the head of the California Tomato Growers Association told Bloomberg, mirroring many Californians who said their wells are drying up. “We are getting to a point where we don’t have inventory left to keep fulfilling the market demand.”

According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, California’s tomato processors reported contracts for 12.2 million tons of tomatoes for 2022, which is an increase in demand of 10% compared to last year. The drought’s slowing of the yield and production of tomatoes in California coupled with the increased demand, rising fuel and labor costs are all having an impact on the price of tomatoes and tomato-based products. 

The water shortage, coupled with the steep incline in costs for labor, fuel and fertilizer has exacerbated the problem, said Rick Blankenship, vice president of farming operations for Fresno, California-based Woolf Farming. Since California has restricted groundwater use, it costs the grower and processor around $4,800 an acre to grow and harvest a tomato crop right now, compared to $2,800 a decade ago.

Tomato supplies have dropped drastically because of the drought and all of these other factors, leading experts to warn that vendors reaching out to suppliers for tomato-based items might find supplies are either prohibitively expensive or simply out of stock. This happened in 2021 as well, but this year, the drought is making it worse. That eventually will make its way to the everyday tomato lover and their dinner table.

As for what this means for our favorite food products with tomatoes as a main ingredient, some companies have taken preventative measures in anticipation of a situation like this.

“Currently, we do not predict a gap in service for any products where tomatoes are a critical ingredient,” a Kraft Heinz spokesperson told TODAY Food in an email. “To maintain production, our cross-functional team put a strategy in place that uncovered new regions to source tomatoes, as well as the approach to breed unique tomato seeds that have a stronger resistance to climate challenges and are water efficient.”

Kraft Heinz, which uses tomatoes to make its signature ketchup, Classico pasta sauce, tomato vinaigrette and more, also said its season’s crop in California has been reporting good yields and quality, even with extremely hot temperatures. “As the world’s largest consumer of tomatoes, it’s our responsibility to keep our beloved products on people’s tables and thanks to the agility of our global agriculture, seed and crop teams, we are able to do this without interruption.”

Because there’s no substituting the taste of a real tomato, folks will typically pay more for the wonderful things made with them — in fact, they've already been doing so. According to market research firm IRI, the price of tomato sauce in the four weeks since July 10 has risen 17% from that same time period a year ago, while ketchup is 23% higher and salsa is up 13%.

The Consumer Price Index, a measure of inflation across industries, found that prices economy-wide have increased 8.6% from May 2021 to May 2022. Also, according to a food price outlook by the USDA, prices for all food are now predicted to increase between 8.5% and 9.5% in 2022. Additionally, the index found the level of inflation for grocery store or supermarket food purchases increased 11.9% in that same timeframe.

Tomato-based inflation is set to quickly outpace U.S. food inflation averages, including for poultry, beef, eggs and more, because of the growing drought issue in California. With scientists forecasting hotter and drier conditions across much of the planet due to climate change, the issue is expected to only get worse.