War in Ukraine: cold wave in the French tomato – 04/07/2022 at 17:08


Tomato harvest in the greenhouses of the Jardins de Sévigné, March 31, 2022 in Cesson-Sévigné, Ille-et-Vilaine (AFP/JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER)

In Jean Guilbaud’s tomato rows, it’s best to keep your coat. Like many of his colleagues, the Breton gardener (almost) no longer heats his greenhouses since the rise in gas prices caused by the war in Ukraine.

Oxheart, Noire de Crimée or Rose de Berne: on this spring day, the heirloom tomato harvest is in full swing in the greenhouses of the Jardins de Sévigné, at the gates of Rennes.

But that morning, it was cooler than usual among the rows of tomatoes above the ground, where temperatures did not exceed 12°C, compared to the usual average of 20°C.

Since the rise in gas prices, which have risen ten times their usual rate, Jean Guilbaud has drastically reduced the heating of his 2.3 hectares of greenhouses, the oldest of which date from the 1970s.

With such old greenhouses, “it was already an economical model on borrowed time,” says the gardener. “So, with the evolution of the cost of energy, there is no solution,” laments the man with the gray mustache, by way of “sad and resigned observation.”

This “vegetable enthusiast” may have postponed part of his crops for three months, which will be “totally cold”, the three days of frost in early April still “cost him 15,000 euros” of gas just to protect his young plants, ensures calculates

– Fall in yields –

Deprived of heat, tomatoes are also at risk of slower growth and disease, leading to a drop in yields. “Many companies will not recover,” Guilbaud said.

Gardener Jean Guilbaud shows his tomatoes in his greenhouse at the Jardins de Sévigné, on March 31, 2022 in Cesson-Sévigné, Ille-et-Vilaine (AFP / JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER)

Gardener Jean Guilbaud shows his tomatoes in his greenhouse at the Jardins de Sévigné, on March 31, 2022 in Cesson-Sévigné, Ille-et-Vilaine (AFP / JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER)

France has about 1,200 hectares of above-ground tomato greenhouses, heated mainly by gas, according to professional organizations in the sector.

Tomatoes in heated greenhouses are often criticized for their carbon footprint (1.88 kilos of CO2 per kilo of tomato), which is much heavier than that of seasonal tomatoes (0.51 kilo), according to figures from Ademe (Environment Agency and Energy Management).

Its proponents point to very low water consumption and less use of pesticides.

More modern and better insulated, greenhouses have also significantly reduced their energy consumption in recent years.

Tomato harvest in the greenhouses of the Jardins de Sévigné, March 31, 2022 in Cesson-Sévigné, Ille-et-Vilaine (AFP/JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER)

Tomato harvest in the greenhouses of the Jardins de Sévigné, March 31, 2022 in Cesson-Sévigné, Ille-et-Vilaine (AFP/JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER)

But, with the rise in gasoline prices, “it is our entire system that is affected,” admits Laurent Bergé, president of the Association of National Producer Organizations (AOPn) for tomatoes and cucumbers in France. “We are completely questioning our technical model.”

– “Big losses” –

“It’s as if the fuel at the pump cost 15 euros a liter,” says Bruno Vila, general secretary of Légumes de France and a tomato producer near Perpignan. “For every kilo you produce, you lose money.”

Tomato harvest in the greenhouses of the Jardins de Sévigné, March 31, 2022 in Cesson-Sévigné, Ille-et-Vilaine (AFP/JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER)

Tomato harvest in the greenhouses of the Jardins de Sévigné, March 31, 2022 in Cesson-Sévigné, Ille-et-Vilaine (AFP/JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER)

Because passing on the rise in energy costs would be equivalent to doubling the sale price of tomatoes for growers. In other words, mission impossible in the face of competition from Moroccan tomatoes.

“The year is going to be very difficult, there will be huge losses,” predicts Christophe Rousse, president of the Breton cooperative Solarenn. “If we can’t heat the greenhouses, we won’t have any more French tomatoes,” he says.

Especially since solutions to do without gas heating continue to emerge.

Some recent greenhouses have managed to connect to a district heating network, such as in Vitré (Ille-et-Vilaine), where the incinerator heats the tomatoes.

Others, like Yannick Bernard, a gardener from Saint-Nicolas-du-Tertre (Morbihan), combine a wood-fired boiler with a heat network generated by gas from a methanator.

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The greenhouses of the “Jardins de Sévigné”, on March 31, 2022 in Cesson-Sévigné, in Ille-et-Vilaine (AFP/JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER)

“Today I am very little affected (by the rise in energy prices). We do not sleep the same…”, he admits.

But the best option might be to harness “waste” energy generated by other industries. “It’s the most obvious solution, that’s the future of our profession,” said Mr. Bernard.

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