How the Dutch tomato market knew (and lived with) ToBRFV

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The abbreviation in the title no longer needs an explanation in the land of the tomato. Two years after the virus was first officially discovered in the Netherlands, everyone who grows, raises, packages or markets tomatoes is facing the Rough Brown Tomato Fruit Virus (ToBRFV), either because of an infection in their own greenhouse, or simply because it influences the market so much. This summer, for example, ToBRFV infections caused tomato shortages that resulted in “winter prices.” The virus is also expected to impact the market in the coming season, as plantings are disrupted and peaks in production will occur at other times.

All of these changes in growth and demand can be described as the “ToBRFV effect”, which first manifested itself this summer, at least in the tomato trade. This can be explained by the fact that the number of infections has increased sharply and therefore the virus has spread considerably.

For growers and breeders, the virus has been a hot topic and a major source of concern for a few years now. Since the first official discovery of ToBRFV in the Netherlands in the spring of 2019, the virus has spread rapidly around the world. The virus is easily transferable and “highly persistent”, as virologists call it: the virus can survive for long periods without a host plant in the greenhouse, for example on clothes or on barrels.

In 2018, the virus surfaced in Germany, while scientific literature on the virus lists Israel as the first place the virus was found in 2014. The plant virus is not dangerous to humans and animals. , but it is dangerous for peppers and especially tomatoes. The fact that the virus is harmless to humans and animals was highlighted as soon as the first reports of the virus started circulating, which makes sense, because as soon as ToBRFV started to become serious in the Netherlands, the people got scared. A virus and the resulting negative publicity for tomatoes, as everyone involved in the tomato world who also experienced the Wasserbombs crisis in the 1990s knows, can cause major (financial) damage. What if consumers decided not to buy tomatoes (from the Netherlands) anymore out of unjustified fear of the virus?

Status Q
It hasn’t come to that in recent years, but it has remained, especially in 2019, very calm around the virus. So calm, in fact, that several specialists from the Netherlands felt compelled to appeal to the market during 2019 to share information in particular. René van der Vlugt was one of them in July 2019. “Without clarity there is no real action, yet this is what is desperately needed,” he noted. René stressed the importance of caution in reporting viruses in greenhouse horticulture, precisely because of commercial and political interests, but also stressed that ToBRFV, as a persistent virus and a real threat, should be taken. seriously.

In March 2019, the first rumors of ToBRFV discoveries on Dutch soil began to circulate. However, it was not until October that an officially confirmed infection report was made. Shortly thereafter, on November 1, 2019, the virus was given European (Q) quarantine status. This means that it has become mandatory to report to the authorities in case of (suspected) infection. Even before obtaining a Q status, the Netherlands was not in favor of such a status due to the “lack of clarity” about the virus at the time and the fact that cutting down a greenhouse has a “considerably greater impact on a corporate tomato than the virus itself,” an NVWA the spokesperson said in May 2019.

With today’s knowledge, there is much more clarity on the spread of the virus, as evidenced, for example, by the frequently consulted European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization (EPPO) virus spread map). Precisely because the virus is so widespread, the Netherlands continues to point out the disadvantages of the Q status. This status weighs heavily on the Netherlands as a large but at the same time small player in terms of the workforce. with regard to, for example, virus testing and tracing research. The NVWA and the National Plant Protection Organization (NPPO) therefore hope to convince the rest of the European member states that once the current Q status expires in May 2022, (stringent) requirements on seeds and plant material may also ensure the spread of the virus.

ToBRFV counter
After the first official Dutch infections, the number of ToBRFV infections, which the Dutch Food and Consumer Safety Authority (NVWA) has been transparently tracking since then, has started to rise. The latest tally, as of September 13, 2021, is that there are 29 infected farms in the Netherlands. In total, the virus has been identified at 41 culture sites since mid-2019. Infected growers are monitored and must begin work with a set of officially determined hygiene measures. However, producers do not get rid of the virus overnight; growers have become accustomed to many viruses over time, such as the tomato chlorosis virus (ToCV), but ToBRFV turns out to be an even more virulent enemy, if possible. Before ToBRFV made its appearance, there was a lot of buzz surrounding ToCV in 2018, and it still is, like the Dutch virus association HorticultureAlert pointed out that ToCV was still “latent” last fall.

Several producers have now succeeded in eliminating the virus permanently; NVWA talks about 9 locations that officially “knocked out” the virus in September 13 figures. There is also 1 location where the virus returned, despite the fact that the growers cleaned the infected crop after the infection and cleaned and disinfected the greenhouse. In the meantime, some growers have decided, due to the persistence of the virus, to switch to another crop, for example cucumber. Such a change is not something that producers are particularly keen to promote, as talking about the virus remains difficult, but gradually there is more openness. Tomato grower Leo van der Lans, for example, has been in the media several times this year (Algemeen Dagblad, WOS) to talk about the ToBRFV infection that continues to plague his business and which he does not think is happening. ‘it will be completely eradicated. “We will have to live with it,” he told WOS in September. Growers report crop losses to NVWA when there is 5-30 percent infection. They don’t have to clean their entire greenhouse, but infected plants produce less and must be removed from the greenhouse to avoid further spread and more damage. Fruits showing viral symptoms are, from an aesthetic point of view, unsaleable.

Outside the Netherlands, he remained, officially speaking, quite calm (also); there is no ToBRFV meter as maintained by NVWA overseas. The Belgian Federal Agency for the Safety of the Food Chain (FAVV), for example, does not have such a counter, at least not in public – this is not a reproach, but an observation. FAVV, like NVWA and phytosanitary services elsewhere, shares hygiene protocols and, if requested, also contamination figures. At the end of June, Belgium had 6 official contaminations among production producers. Meanwhile, the EPPO contamination map, even without ToBRFV counters, has become increasingly colorful. This year in particular, one country after another is reporting contamination. These are often “first discoveries”, but countries like Spain are also reporting new infections.

Solution
Since the end of last year, in addition to the reports of infections, there have also been more and more reports of (future) resistant varieties. Several (large) breeding companies are busy adding resistance to varieties in their laboratories and demonstration greenhouses. However, it is not a straightforward process, let alone quick. Breeding, as always, takes time. Meanwhile, breeding companies got a glimpse of a gene that adds “intermediate” or “high” resistance to ToBRFV in a tomato, as it is called in breeding parlance. For other tomato viruses, such a gene has proven to be a good solution. The higher the resistance, the less viral symptoms a plant will show (discolored leaves, spots on a tomato). With the varieties, which are now being tested in many places, breeding companies are targeting countries like Mexico and regions like the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Another ‘solution’ could be a vaccine, but as long as the virus has a Q status, its production is (virtually) impossible and illegal, as was demonstrated in the Netherlands last September when the NVWA raided a location where attempts were reportedly made to develop such a vaccine.

Producers are eagerly awaiting such solutions, although they are also realistic and expect new threats after ToBRFV. In the meantime, they are forced to adopt almost hospitable hygiene practices on their farms. If you walk into a tomato farm today, it’s covered from head to toe and you’re almost more likely to come across laundromats than tomato plants. The producers have invested heavily in, for example, washing machines to wash the clothes of their staff, and also the barrels undergo, even more than before, a meticulous washing with advanced installations. This washing of barrels is also a point of attention for trading and packaging companies, where (reusable) barrels enter and leave. The advice for plant viruses and therefore also for ToBRFV is generally to separate the container streams as much as possible and clean and disinfect containers before they enter the business.

All of these types of investments and hygiene costs, in addition to the constant threat of (re) contamination with ToBRFV and the resulting loss of production, weigh heavily on producers. On top of that, this fall the energy crisis hit. Electricity and gas prices have skyrocketed, forcing producers to reconsider their strategy. Is it still worth turning on the lights full out when production costs exceed returns? The energy crisis adding to the situation of ToBRFV promises an extraordinary (winter) season, which is perhaps the only certainty for now.


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