The Shift in Tomato Agriculture: Adapting to a Drier Future

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California’s Tomato Harvest Crisis: Climate Change and the Path to Resilience

California’s agricultural heartland has long been synonymous with abundance. However, the recent decades have brought a marked decrease in the harvested acres of tomatoes—from 312,000 acres in 1991 to 228,000 acres in 2021, showcasing a clear impact of climate stressors on agricultural outputs (Agriculture Department). 

Key Points: 

  • Significant Decrease in Harvested Acres: California has experienced a substantial decline in tomato cultivation area from 312,000 acres in 1991 to 228,000 acres in 2021, illustrating the stark impact of climate change on agricultural productivity. 
  • Innovative Breeding for Drought Tolerance: Bayer’s Woodland facility is at the forefront of creating new tomato hybrids that use up to 50% less water, aiming to preserve water resources while maintaining crop yields and quality. 
  • Economic Resilience for Farmers: The development of drought-tolerant tomato seeds is essential for farmers’ economic viability, potentially preventing the need to sell off farmland and ensuring continued agricultural operations. 
  • Legal Complexities in Agricultural Innovation: The introduction of new, drought-resistant tomato varieties entails intricate legal considerations, including intellectual property rights and compliance with environmental regulations, which affect the distribution and use of these seeds. 
  • Future Prospects and Industry Adaptation: The agricultural sector is taking a forward-looking approach to combat climate challenges, with seed companies investing in hardier crops and considering geographic shifts in cultivation to ensure long-term food supply and stability in the face of global climate shifts. 


California is a crucible for agricultural innovation, particularly in the development of drought-tolerant crops. Bayer’s pioneering work in Woodland, California, underscores a strategic pivot towards sustainability in the face of dwindling water resources. The team, led by vegetable breeder Taylor Anderson, is experimenting with hybrid tomatoes that could potentially reduce water usage by 20% to 50%. Such breakthroughs could translate into saving approximately 34 billion gallons of water annually for California farmers, juxtaposing the city’s consumption where the typical growing season requires 169 billion gallons—nearly half the annual water use of New York City (Bayer, City of New York). 

The implications of this shift are profound, both economically and legally. Farmers like Jim Beecher, facing the brunt of arid conditions, pin their hopes on these advancements to maintain profitability and avoid selling ancestral lands. The legal frameworks governing these innovations, such as intellectual property rights for new seed varieties, become increasingly important as they dictate the availability and distribution of these technologies. 

The industry’s drive towards resilience is not just a response to the present but a preemptive strategy for the future. The intensifying competition among seed companies like Bayer, Kraft Heinz, and Syngenta to produce hardier crops underscores a broader trend of anticipatory innovation. The legal considerations for these companies involve not only the protection of their innovations but also adherence to environmental regulations that govern the testing and deployment of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). 

The prospect of relocating crops, as mentioned by Syngenta’s Jeff Rowe, adds another layer of complexity, involving potential legal hurdles regarding land use, zoning, and environmental impact assessments. These legalities, coupled with the high costs of new equipment and infrastructure, make the development of resilient plant varieties a more viable option. 

As the agricultural sector adapts, the legal profession, too, must evolve. Lawyers specializing in environmental and agricultural law are increasingly called upon to navigate the complex legal landscape that shapes the industry’s response to climate change. This nexus of law, agriculture, and environmental stewardship is becoming a critical area of expertise, requiring a blend of traditional legal skills with a deep understanding of the emerging challenges and technologies in agriculture. 

The pursuit of drought-tolerant tomato varieties is more than an agricultural endeavor; it is a multidisciplinary challenge with significant legal, economic, and environmental dimensions. As California’s tomato acreage adapts to a hotter, drier world, the lessons learned here will have widespread implications for global agricultural practices and policies. The race to save not just ketchup, but the broader agricultural bounty, is emblematic of a world rethinking its relationship with nature, resources, and the legal frameworks that support sustainable innovation. 


Thomas, Patrick. “The Race to Save Ketchup: Building a Tomato for a Hotter World.” The Wall Street Journal, 3 Dec. 2023, https://www.wsj.com/science/environment/ketchup-tomato-california-hotter-world-94337adf?mod=djemfoe. 

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