Ecovore Book Review: Tomatoland


Slavery, pollution, pesticide poisoning, birth defects, salad… what do these things have in common? Yes! Your Florida-grown winter tomato! Ecovores and others who want their grocery dollars supporting sustainable, ethical food production: Tomatoland is an eye-opener, well worth reading.

Author Barry Estabrook explores the seedy underbelly of the American tomato industry in Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. His quest began as a question: why the heck can’t modern agriculture produce a decent sandwich tomato?!

Dredging through the realities of industrial tomato production, he found that pale, hard, tasteless, and nutritionally lacking fruit are the least of the problems with industrially produced Florida tomatoes. Estabrook’s investigation unearthed a bevy of unsavory practices, that most consumers probably never ever ever suspected they were supporting. I surely didn’t.

Tomatoes for canning and processing are typically grown in California; almost all industrially produced domestic tomatoes sold in the produce aisle originate in Florida. Greenhouse tomatoes and Mexican imports might round out the selection, but South Florida is the origin point for most winter tomatoes sold in the US.

Estaman leads readers on a tour of the once-delicious fruit’s history, interesting in its own right. He follows with an exploration of all the reasons that Florida is a horrible place to try to grow tomatoes: un-tomato-friendly humidity, fungal diseases, hordes of pests, sandy soil completely devoid of nutrients…

Because of the extremely poor match between the crop and the Florida environment, conventional growers rely on an obscene amount of harsh chemistry and a host of profoundly unsustainable practices. The author makes a strong case that “Florida’s tomato fields provide a stark example of what a food system looks like when all elements of sustainability are violated.”

But what struck me hardest were Tomatoland’s revelations of systematic human rights abuses, within modern tomato farming.

Protest sign at farmworker rights rally: tomatoes painted with 'Greed'According to Estabrook’s research, human trafficking is a serious problem in the Florida tomato industry. Naively, like perhaps most Americans, I was under the false impression that slavery in agriculture was a dark but long-resolved part of US history. But Douglas Malloy, chief assistant US attorney in Fort Meyers, asserts that Florida’s tomato fields are “ground zero for modern-day slavery.”

Estabrook clarifies that the issue is not near-slavery, or slavery-like conditions, but full scale humans-bought-and-sold-and-kept-chained-up actual outright slavery. In the last 15 years, over a thousand people have been freed from imprisonment and forced tomato-field labor by Florida authorities. Officials say this is only the tip of the iceberg, since most slavery cases go unreported.

Workers were sold to crew bosses to pay off bogus debts, beaten if they didn’t feel like working or were too sick or weak to work, held in chains, pistol whipped, locked at night into shacks in chain-link enclosures patrolled by armed guards. Escapees who got caught were beaten or worse. Corpses of murdered farmworkers were not an uncommon sight in the rivers and canals of South Florida.

In the seven major slavery cases prosecuted in Florida during the last 15 years, only low-ranking ‘contract field managers’ were brought to justice. The wealthy owners of the tomato fields, who benefited (and continue to benefit) from slave labor incurred no legal penalties or censure.

Estaman points out that the tomato industry treats field workers who aren’t trafficking victims almost as harshly:

Florida tomato workers, mostly Hispanic migrants, toil without union protection and get neither overtime, benefits, nor medical insurance. They are denied basic human rights that virtually all other laborers enjoy… they have to live near the fields, often paying rural slumlords exorbitant rents to be crammed with ten or a dozen other farmworkers in moldering trailers with neither heat nor air conditioning and which would be condemned outright in any other American jurisdiction…

Labor protections for [tomato field] workers predate the Great Depression.

The tomato industry is notorious for using some of the most toxic pesticides known to modern agriculture, all too often spraying these toxins directly on workers — workers including child laborers and pregnant women.  Because of the naturally tomato-hostile growing conditions including overabundant pests and fungal diseases, Florida growers typically use about five times more fungicide and six times more pesticide than California tomato growers. Predictably, field workers pay the price.

Estaman introduces readers to three families living within 100 yards of each other near Immokalee, working for the same tomato grower, subject to the same maternal exposure to toxic pesticides — and experiencing a cluster of profound birth defects in their children, inconsistent with risk factors other than pesticide poisoning.

The mothers we meet in Tomatoland, along with their husbands and fellow workers, were routinely illegally exposed to high levels of no less than 31 toxic chemicals. Among these were metribuzin (herbicide), mancozeb (fungicide), and avermectin (insecticide) — all of which are known to be highly dangerous developmental and reproductive toxins. Tomato fieldworkers including pregnant women are also heavily (often illegally) exposed to high levels of methyl iodide (pesticide), a neurotoxin and known cause of late-term miscarriages, called by the EPA “one of the most toxic chemicals used in manufacturing.”

Estaman provides compelling evidence that

Florida officials take a what-we-don’t-know-won’t-hurt-us approach to enforcing pesticide application laws and recording instances of farmworkers being exposed to chemicals while on the job… When instances of pesticide misuse do surface in Florida, penalties are rarely levied against the farms that are responsible. Between 1993 and 2003, less than 8 percent of the pesticide violations in Florida resulted in fines.

The environmental and human rights issues ongoing in Florida’s Tomatoland will make you angry, and probably send you scurrying to buy local greenhouse tomatoes instead — or better yet, to the heirloom seed catalog! But Estaman also introduces us to that rare and wonderful thing: a grower committed to sustainable, ethical farming practices — even for Florida tomatoes! — and making it work.

Regarding that initial question — taste — frustrated shoppers may be surprised to learn that uniform ripening, in combination with sturdiness during shipping, are the ONLY traits considered valuable in industrial tomato development. Taste and nutrition? Ha! Silly consumers!

The all-powerful Florida Tomato Committee actually prohibits growers from exporting heirlooms or other interesting (as in potentially flavorful) tomatoes. The cartel-like Committee mandates that all tomatoes shipped north must be “flawlessly smooth, evenly round, and of a certain size. Taste is not a consideration.”

Duly effing noted!

Overall I found Tomatoland alternately intriguing, infuriating, and deeply disturbing. By which I mean: if you are interested in using your grocery dollar to vote for ethical, sustainable food production, I highly recommend it!

Image credit: Creative Commons photos by tanakawho and National Farm Worker Ministry.


12 thoughts on “Ecovore Book Review: Tomatoland”

  1. Horrifying but not surprising. I know that poor conditions for migrant tomato farm workers extends further north than Florida. It’s truly disturbing.

  2. Agreed X 2! You’re absolutely right, in that the scope of the problem extends beyond FL tomatoes– these kind of abusive practices, though, absolutely depend on an ignorant consumer base… hopefully that is changing, slowly but surely! Thanks for your input. :-)

  3. Thanks for the review! I recently had this movie come up in my Amazon “recommended for you” list. I think I’ll take a look at it now. Though, it can get to a point that being informed is just depressing, if you watch a lot of these movies. But it certainly reinforces my preference for local and organic produce whenever possible.

    1. I like books a lot, for that reason… when you need a ‘reality break’ you can just put it down and watch a comedy or something! :-P It can be hard to know all the icky things going on; but I’d still rather know than support it blindly. Woot local organics! :-)

  4. Hard to believe this happens in my backyard (Florida)! I am reposting this on all my social networking sites so that others can be informed. Thank you for doing a service by writing this article.

  5. Clearly written, informative, quite persuasive. Both Estabrook’s work and Sitton’s review deserve a wide readership.

  6. How frustrating that it takes public outcry for officials charged with enforcing the law to do so. I don’t understand how this can be both a *known* and an *ongoing* problem. Fix it already!

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