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August 15, 2011

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Tempting tomatoes

CHINA is the world's biggest producer of tomatoes and exporter of ketchup, much coming from the Xinjiang region. Hu Min visits a farm to harvest luscious tomatoes.

Fengyuan Farm is an ocean of ripe, red tomatoes stretching as far as the eye can see under clear blue skies in scorching hot Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.

This is the time to harvest the big, juicy, sweet vegetable (some call it a fruit) and China is the world's biggest producer and the biggest exporter of tomato sauce and ketchup.

Xinjiang is one of the biggest tomato-growing regions.

Fengyuan Farm covering 1,990 mu (133 hectares) in Changji Hui Autonomous Prefecture, two hours' drive from Xinjiang's regional capital Urumqi, is the heart of the fertile tomato growing plain with mountains and deserts to the north. It gets lots of sun and there's a big diurnal temperature range, making it ideal for growing tomatoes.

Tomatoes are rich in many nutrients and antioxidants, notably lycopene, carotenes and xanthines. They promote cardiovascular and eye health and lycopene may help protect against some kinds of cancers. Every 100 grams of tomato contains eight to 10 milligrams of lycopene.

Tomatoes are made into juice, paste, sauce, ketchup and powder.

Most processed tomatoes are exported to Europe and America. One reason is that Westerners use a lot of tomato sauce and recognize the health benefits of tomatoes, especially cooked tomatoes. Most Chinese regard tomatoes as a common vegetable.

The farm is the biggest tomato growing center in the region. It is part of the sustainable agricultural program jointly developed by Unilever China and COFCO Tunhe, which have revolutionized traditional cultivation methods so they are sustainable and eco-friendly. They use a minimum of the safest fertilizers and pesticides.

"The aim is to cultivate tomatoes in a more scientific way, involving state-of-the-art techniques to analyze soil conditions and nutrition, use fertilizer efficiently and increase output," says Hu Ximing, agriculture manager with the global supply management department of Unilever China, which is supervising the project.

"There's a complete system of food traceability," he says.

Liu Gang, a farmer-technician, visits the farm regularly to check the growth of tomatoes. He's been doing this for six years and is impressed by the improved cultivation and output.

"In the past, pesticides were used as a blunt weapon to control pests, but now, we use various means to kill them," Liu says, citing electricity among others.

In the extremely arid region, new drip irrigation has been applied, replacing spraying that was common in the past. Spraying covered everything and spread too much moisture, making the land vulnerable to molds and pests. The drip method also saves water, reducing consumption from 600 cubic meters to 400 cubic meters for every 1 mu.

There are beds between plots of tomato to ensure enough sunlight and ventilation and anti-pest devices kill pests with electricity. The incidence of insect pests has been reduced by 10 percent with the new device.

Manager Hu has developed software to achieve the optimal and balanced use of fertilizer. Many people mistakenly believe that extra nitrogen fertilizer will hasten ripening, Hu says, adding that overuse of fertilizer increases pests and pollution.

A traceability system is in place. The residue of pesticides in soil, water, seedlings and fruit is strictly monitored to ensure that tomato products meet the standard set by the European Union.

"If one of the products fails to meet the food security standard, we can easily detect which plot it comes from, which fertilizer is used, and what variety it is," says Yu Tianchi, vice president of COFCO Tunhe.

Fengyuan Farm grows a variety of tomatoes with different ripening periods to ensure a steady supply from July to September.

It was only a few decades ago that the tomato was introduced to Xinjiang where it flourished. COFCO Tunhe has about 450,000 mu of tomatoes under cultivation in Xinjiang. Around 70 percent of the land is leased from households where farmers are instructed in sustainable, eco-friendly agriculture. All tomatoes are picked, washed and processed mechanically.

Unilever teamed up with COFCO Tunhe in 2006 to develop sustainable agriculture projects, which also involve growing mushrooms and garlic. It purchases 20,000 tons of tomatoes from COFCO Tunhe every year, exporting 95 percent to overseas markets.

China exports around 800,000 tons of ketchup, sauce and paste a year.

COFCO Tunhe is Asia's largest ketchup maker, with 600,000 mu under cultivation and 24 companies processing tomato products. It produces 350,000 tons of ketchup every year.


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