(Saint-Jérôme) It’s an open secret in Canadian greenhouses. After traveling around the world, the tomato brown rugose fruit virus is now present in Quebec greenhouses. This virus, commonly known as “tomato rugosis”, safe for human consumption, can cause catastrophic losses. But we see the end of the tunnel: scientists have developed plants that resist the disease.

To enter the Serres Royales, you have to put on a sterile suit, gloves and shoe covers, then dip your feet in a tray filled with disinfectant liquid.

“Some people call it tomato COVID-19, others call it tomato cancer, but we call it the business killer virus,” says the president and CEO of Les Serres. Royales, Stephan Lemieux.

On a cart near the entrance, bins are stacked. They are filled with green and yellow marbled tomatoes. As if they were waiting to mature. But these tomatoes will never turn fully red.

Uneven ripening is one of the symptoms of the ToBRFV virus (from the English name “Tomato brown rugose fruit virus”), diagnosed in one of the company’s three greenhouses on February 14.

This virus does not change the taste of the food. Rather, it is his appearance that is affected. Some fruits become bumpy or with crevices. The leaves of the plant wilt and show a mosaic pattern.

“What’s really unfortunate is that this disease breaks out at harvest,” sighs Stephan Lemieux. This is after expenses for heating, labor, fertilizer. »

First detected in Israel in 2014, the virus has wreaked havoc in greenhouses in Europe, the Middle East, the United States and Mexico. It was first detected in Canada in 2019, in a greenhouse in Ontario.

The extent of the contagion in Quebec is difficult to determine, because the Canadian Food Inspection Agency decided, in 2020, that it would not be a reportable disease.

And producers are afraid to talk about it. To the point where a totally confidential study has just been launched by the Mirabel Agrifood Research Center to document the extent of the phenomenon.

“This problem of rugosis, it is very worrying. Now, what about Quebec? We don’t know,” says researcher Caroline Provost, who is leading the study. “We know that there are some companies that have it [but] very few will say so publicly,” adds the researcher.

Once the samples have been received, she will be the only one to have access to the data file containing the names of the companies.

“It’s our way of saying, ‘Listen, we want information, but we don’t want to harm you either.’ We are going to keep it really, very confidential, but it will allow us to draw a portrait of what we find in Quebec, to be able to better understand the situation and to put measures in place. »

In Canada, the only company that has talked about it publicly is Lufa, which operates four rooftop greenhouses in the Montreal area. In her newsletter released this week, she explained to her customers the reason why she offered fewer tomatoes on her market.

“It’s part of our mission to be transparent,” says Lufa Farms Director of Communications, Yourianne Plante.

The virus broke out in the tomato greenhouse of the borough of Saint-Laurent. The 15,000 square meter greenhouse has been completely emptied and disinfected.

“Once the virus attacks a greenhouse, you have to act in depth,” she explains.

The tomatoes were then replaced with cucumbers. The Laval greenhouse – where the company’s cucumbers previously grew on 400 square meters – now houses the tomatoes.

“It was a key element in getting to eradicate the virus, to have the possibility of doing a crop rotation, explains Ms. Plante. We do not depend on a single culture. In our case, diversification has been beneficial. »

The financial losses, however, were “substantial”, she says.

Stephan Lemieux continues his tour in his three-hectare greenhouse. He points to a row where he has planted a virus-resistant variety.

“The sinews of war with regard to rugosis, it will really be played out in terms of resistance on the cultivars. »

Four varieties currently being tested at Serres Royales are considered to be “moderately resistant”. Soon, the company will receive about fifteen “highly resistant” cultivars. »

“Medium resistant means that the plant will contract the disease, but it will have mild symptoms. These are the first varieties that began to be available a year ago. There, what is coming are highly resistant varieties. The disease does not develop inside. He will never test positive,” he explains.

Instead of tearing everything up, Stephan Lemieux will focus on the gradual introduction of these new varieties. He made this choice because the virus is extremely difficult to eradicate. It can survive for months on surfaces and years in organic matter.

While the Legault government aims to double the area of ​​greenhouses by 2025, Mr. Lemieux would like Quebec to pay emergency aid to affected producers.

“We are resilient, yes, because the solution is coming. A year ago, I might have been on the floor rolled up in a little ball crying,” he says.

“You get rugosis the moment there start to be tools available. So that’s really the positive side. »

In Quebec, “the vast majority” of our greenhouse tomato seeds are produced overseas, says Valérie Gravel, a McGill professor and co-holder of a new greenhouse research chair funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food of Quebec (MAPAQ). “It’s hard to really put the exact point on the cause […]. In the work that has been done, it is especially with regard to seeds that there is a lot of propagation. So given that in the world, there are still a limited number of seed companies that produce seeds for greenhouse production, it’s quite easy to see that it’s at the seed level, probably, that it’s is set to travel. »

Five companies that have used the public laboratory to have their plants tested have received positive results for the disease since 2020, MAPAQ said. “Quebec greenhouse companies can have their samples tested in other laboratories offering the same service in Canada or abroad. It is therefore not possible for us to confirm the number of greenhouses affected in Quebec,” said Mélissa Lapointe, spokesperson for the Ministry.

“The big problem we have right now is really getting a general idea of ​​the situation, of its magnitude, explains Valérie Gravel. Honestly, at the moment, we are a little bit in the dark. The United States has strict rules in place regarding rugosis, she points out. “So when it affects the reputation of the company, it can affect the export potential too. We must not forget either that we have not known about rugosis for very long, that it is in Quebec, we are talking about the end of 2020. “