Who knew the story of tomatoes was so sordid: modern-day slavery, environmentally destructive chemical agriculture, and fossil fuel guzzling cross-country shipping– all for America’s least favorite fruit? Though the book was published in 2011, Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed our Most Alluring Fruit is still quite relevant today and makes for a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in agriculture, politics and their own connection to food.
Barry Estabrook, former writer for the now-defunct Gourmet magazine, began his quest for information about the Florida tomato just out of sheer curiosity, and was literally shocked with what he found. He opens Tomatoland by describing a drive down a Florida highway, where he saw for the first time the industrial fruit known as the ‘green ripe’ tomato: winter tomatoes that have been picked when green for shipping to the northern states for wintertime tomatoes. Tomatoes so green and hard that they bounce off the highway without cracking or splattering; tomatoes that are not graded based on flavor (which is ‘subjective’) but on size, density and roundness; tomatoes on their way to be gassed with ethylene to falsely ‘ripen,’ then shipped off to stores and restaurants. Anyone who loves seasonal food would surely despair at the thought of eating any tomato in wintertime, but according to the CEO of one of the tomato growing companies, “most people just want something red to put on their salads.” All this work, and yet as Estabrook notes, that shoppers consistently rate tomatoes as the fruit/vegetable they are least satisfied with.
Thus begins the story of Florida’s winter tomatoes, which are sold across the country in the colder months when tomatoes would not normally grow (note that these differ from the California tomatoes, which are usually canned or blended into sauces). The idea of off-season tomatoes is problematic enough for those of us interested in local foods. Worse though is the fact that Florida is the worst climate for growing tomatoes: the soil is made of sand and the weather is hospitable to all manner of viruses, fungi, and critters to eat the tomatoes, which then requires higher-than-permissible levels of chemical injunctions against said viruses, fungi, and critters. Chemicals so strong that entire ecosystems have died, entire communities suffer with maladies so diverse and debilitating that they cannot get out of bed; chemicals so dangerous that when pregnant women worked in the fields, their babies were born without limbs, without a lower jaw, without a nose, without an anus.
And these atrocities are not enough to destroy the industry– the tomato growers in Florida continue to thrive. Yet they have been successful only because the industry relies on the cheap and free labor of modern-day slavery. Lest you think slavery died out a few centuries ago, it is important to know that many of the thousands of immigrant workers coming into America end up on tomato farms in Florida. The state has become a hub of slave labor– workers subjected to contaminated fields, not given food or money, confined to live in trailers, vehicles, and housing so substandard that it doesn’t even have windows. The workers are kept in line by threats to their job, by increasing debt to their ‘bosses,’ and by the rampant alcoholism that is encouraged by the ‘owners.’
Luckily, though continued exposure and ongoing activism, some of the injustices have been addressed. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) works with migrant workers to address health care, housing and fair work, and has made many strides in improving the lives of workers, including getting major food corporations like Trader Joe’s and McDonalds to adjust their pricing to help the workers. But there are still many obstacles to overcome. How can you help? Learn more here on The Coalition of Immokalee Workers site, and read more on Estabrook’s site here. And read the book– it’s incredible!
And, maybe… don’t buy wintertime tomatoes from Florida.
And lest you think Estabrook is some do-gooder hippie, know that his article for Gourmet on labor abuses in Florida’s Tomato fields received the 2010 James Beard Award for magazine feature writing, which you can read here. And his blog, Politics of the Plate, also received the James Beard Award for best blog of the year. This is good stuff!
Image Credit: Tomato photo via Shutterstock