History & Culture

La Tomatina Festival | A Photo-Essay

Each year on the last Wednesday of August, crowds descend on the sleepy mediaeval town of Buñol in Spain to take part in the ‘Tomatina’ festival. In 2023 the event celebrated its 76th year, but in the shadow of rising food prices and increasing concerns about food waste, what does the future hold for the world’s biggest food fight?

Participants in this year's La Tomatina festival, on 30th August, 2023.  (Photo By Jorge Gil via Getty Images)

Participants in this year's La Tomatina festival, 30th August, 2023. (Photo By Jorge Gil via Getty Images)

The origins of La Tomatina

La Tomatina began in 1945, just after World War II. Despite the festival's cultural prominence, its origins are shroud in mystery. Some say it started with a disagreement between farmers, others argue it was a group of youths causing havoc. 

Over the years, the event has grown considerably, to the extent that in 2013 tickets were introduced to manage the number of participants. Now La Tomatina attracts 20,000 people from around the globe.1

Palo Jabón

The day commences at 9am with “Palo Jabón”. A long, greased pole is erected in the centre of town with a piece of ham balanced at its top. Festival goers clamber over each other to reach the base of the Palo Jabón, from where they start the gruelling task of climbing the pole in an attempt to knock the trophy ham from its perch. (Photo by David Canales via Getty Images)

Revellers arrive at the town hall square in the back of a lorry containing tomatoes. (Photo by Zowy Voeten via Getty Images)

Revellers arrive at the town hall square in the back of a lorry containing tomatoes. (Photo by Zowy Voeten via Getty Images)

Painting the town red

Once the ham has fallen, the tomato battle commences. A firework is launched, cuing trucks to release 30,000 kg of tomatoes into the town square. In the space of just one hour, 150,000 tomatoes are flung - enough to turn the streets of Buñol into canals of passata. (Photo by Zowy Voeten via Getty Images)

Organised chaos

In an attempt to make the festivities safer, the local council implemented a short list of rules for the celebrations, such as ensuring tomatoes are squashed before being thrown and not allowing participants to bring any hard objects into the square. (Photos By Zowy Voeten and Jorge Gil via Getty Images)

Another firework is launched to mark the end of the tomato flinging. Fire trucks are brought in to hose down the streets and participants, but much of the final clean up is done by the local community. (Photos By Jorge Gil and Zowy Voeten via Getty Images)

Spin offs

La Tomatina is no longer unique to Buñol. It has inspired similar celebrations in Colorado and Nevada in the USA, as well as Costa Rica, India, Colombia, and China.

Contestants of teams fight during the ‘tomato war’ in Wanjiang Township, China. The event is jointly held by the South China Mall and the Dongguan Tourism Bureau, using around 15 tons of tomatoes. (Photo by China Photos via Getty Images)

An aerial view of attendants throwing tomatoes at one another during the annual "Great Tomatina Colombiana” in Sutamarchan, Colombia. (Photo by Juan David Moreno Gallego via Getty Images)

What about wastage?

Cetrimed, a nearby fruit and vegetable producer that supplies the festival’s tomatoes, argue that the tomatoes used during the food fight are already turning soft, meaning they do not meet ‘national market requirements’.2 However, market standards for fruit and vegetables in the EU are notoriously high, meaning that many of the tomatoes used in the festival are likely to still be edible. 

Whether the tomatoes used are edible or not, it's important to consider what signal the festival gives to the rest of the world. In 2016, La Tomatina received significant backlash on social media when the event coincided with Nigeria announcing a state of emergency after 80% of their annual tomato crop was lost.1 

(Photo by Zowy Voeten/Getty Images)

(Photo by Zowy Voeten via Getty Images)

What’s the future of La Tomatina?

In the face of rising food prices and concerns around climate change, more and more people are questioning the waste that the festival represents. Whilst this remains the dissenting opinion, with few locals finding issue with the celebrations, there will come a time where the local community are forced to consider a new balance between tradition and sustainability.3 

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