Posted on September 14, 2011 - by

What We’re Reading: Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland

Flickr: Thelonius Gonzo

It’s high season for tomatoes, that luscious fruit that the French once called pommes d’amour—apples of love. Here in Oregon, vines in street-side gardens bend low beneath the weight of the red and yellow orbs. Fantastically shaped heirloom varieties overflow their boxes in the grocery stores and farmers markets.

In a few short months this seasonal bounty will be replaced by stacks of red tomatoes, uniform in their size, shape, and firmness. Most of them will have been grown in Florida.

From October to June, nearly all of the fresh tomatoes available in America’s grocery stores come from the Sunshine State, which produces a third of the country’s total tomato harvest. That’s a billion pounds of succulent fruit every year.

But Florida tomatoes are neither delicious nor healthful, writes Barry Estabrook in his new book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. The tomatoes that Estabrook encounters during his undressing of Florida’s industrial tomato industry are flavorless, rock-hard, and lacking in the nutrients once concentrated in the fruit. That’s because tomatoes have been bred to be durable and uniform—so that they can be shipped thousands of miles in the winter and still catch the consumer’s eye—but not necessarily to taste good.

The taste and texture of the insipid Florida tomato are but the smallest of its evils. The true focus of Tomatoland is the human and environmental cost of the system that satisfies our off-season cravings for fresh produce—the tons of chemicals dumped, the workers poisoned, beaten, and enslaved. Estabrook’s expose shines a harsh light on the many injustices inherent in Florida’s tomato industry, but it raises just as many questions about our food system as a whole. Estabrook isn’t just out to bemoan the ruin of his favorite sandwich-stuffer. He’s protesting the decline of American agriculture as it sinks beneath the weight of market pressure. It’s not just Floridians. We’re all living in Tomatoland.

Estabrook swiftly outlines the journey of the tomato from its birthplace in Peru to domestication in Latin America and Europe, to genetics laboratories in California, and finally to Florida, where a businessman exporting tomatoes to New York in the early twentieth century established an enduring model for commercial success: the tomatoes he shipped were green, cheap, and produced in the off-season.

As it happens, Florida is a terrible place for growing tomatoes. The state’s sandy soil holds few nutrients, and so demands intensive fertilization. The heat, humidity, and infrequent frosts nurture hordes of destructive pathogens and pests that growers control with toxic pesticides and fungicides. Each year, Florida tomato farmers spray eight times the amount of chemicals on their produce as do growers with similar crop sizes in California, the second leading tomato producer.

Estabrook offers chilling accounts of the consequences of such chemical-intensive farming techniques. He tells the story of three mothers who worked in tomato fields belonging to Ag-Mart, whose babies, born within seven weeks of one another, were either deformed or died soon after birth. Estabrook goes on to share a riveting report of the legal hearings that ultimately established that Francisca Herrera’s preventable contact with pesticides was responsible for her son Carlitos’ disability; he was born with no arms or legs.

Perhaps the most important question raised in Tomatoland is about the vulnerability of the people who harvest our food, particularly undocumented immigrants. Workers like Herrera who are injured—accidentally or intentionally—on the job are often reluctant to seek legal protection because of their undocumented status (as was the case for Herrera). Poverty, as well as language and literacy barriers make it easier for employers to exploit a migrant work force. Work in Florida’s tomato fields often amounts to very real, modern slavery, with workers locked up at night, and beaten for refusing to work or for trying to run away.

The stories of abuse are emotional, but Estabrook honors his role as a journalist by including the voices of the big men in the tomato business. Estabrook challenges the excuses given by the industry for its shameful practices, but Tomatoland doesn’t argue that the root of the problem lies with exploitative tomato farmers. It’s the system that demands the cheapest product, with no mechanism of accounting for the hidden costs. It’s an appalling lack of enforcement of already-weak agricultural labor laws. It’s industry cartels, like the Florida Tomato Committee, that manipulate the market for self-interest.

Tomatoland does document positive signs of change. He writes at length about the success of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), which fought to improve labor conditions and ultimately established a “fair food agreement” that gave workers rights to and extra penny per pound picked. He tells the stories of several farmers, activists, and researchers who are finding more sustainable and just ways of growing and buying tomatoes.

The one thing Estabrook doesn’t do is suggest a fix for America’s broke-down industrial agricultural model. If his assertion that the 1 cent a pound raise for tomato pickers amounts to 20 to 30 dollars more per day falls a bit flat, perhaps it’s because there really is no satisfying fix to a system that never worked to begin with.

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  1. Visit My Website

    September 27, 2011

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    Barbara Talbert said:

    I can no longer eat these terrible tomatoes from the grocery store so I have to get my fill from the garden in the summer. I substitute artichoke hearts in my winter salads. All genetically engineered and chemically drenched food should be avoided by everyone. Thank you for your website which is a great one!
    The human condition of these workers is a sad thing–the terrible suffering of babies and their parents. Knowing this now I will be glad I don’t eat those winter tomatoes.