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An unprecedented threat could send the price of this popular pantry staple soaring: ‘We just have to hope for good…’

“The only option is to somehow change the biology of the plants themselves.”

"The only option is to somehow change the biology of the plants themselves.”

Photo Credit: iStock

A spike in the price of ketchup this year may just be part of a new normal.

A tomato shortage years in the making caused a 28% year-over-year jump from $4.08 to $5.22 for a 32-ounce bottle of Heinz. Time reported in May that “three summers’ worth of unprecedented high heat” in Australia, Spain, and California led to a huge decline in stores of tomato paste, the main ingredient in ketchup and other sauces.

The conditions were worrisome enough that the outlet stated reserves were “starting to run thin” and that “the latest looming food shortage” would feature the super popular condiment, but winter rains that eased drought conditions might have also saved the Golden State’s crop.

California produces 95% of the tomatoes in America’s canned goods and 25% of the world’s tomatoes, but its yields were 5% and 10% smaller in 2021 and 2022, according to Time.

“If people can hang on for the next few years, I think there’s a really good chance we can build something that is much more climate resilient,” evolutionary biologist Mariano Alvarez told Time. “In the meantime we just have to hope for good rains and cool summers.”

Alvarez is the co-founder and chief scientific officer of bioscience company Avalo, which identifies genes to advance natural crop evolution.

Time reported there is a “growing cohort” of such scientist-farmers who use robotics, chemistry, genome sequencing, genetic mining, and artificial intelligence to create crossbreeds capable of thriving as the planet warms.

“We can’t make the plants flower and go through that development cycle any faster,” Alvarez said. “The best thing we can do now is produce new varieties in a couple of years [whereas a more conventional process takes seven to 10] … For a lot of [tomato producers], the only option is to somehow change the biology of the plants themselves.”

One example of this method Time pointed to is chickpeas harnessed to flourish in temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, a feat achieved by agriculture scientists in Australia.

Other crops that were threatened this year include hazelnuts, olives, and hops. Perhaps most concerning is the possibility that Australian wheat, which accounts for 17% of the global yield, worth $10 billion, could be undone by the first El Niño in seven years. Wheat is one of four crops that make up two-thirds of the calories from humans’ plant-based diets.

Tomatoes may have escaped calamity by the skin of their teeth this year, but the vital role of evolutionary biologists such as Alvarez seems destined to grow.

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