When I was a kid, my parents and I often strolled the sunbaked rows of the family garden and, after flicking off a caterpillar or two, gently parted the vines to get at a bounty of blushing, warm tomatoes. Genteel we were not: We slurped and grunted as the juice trickled down our chins. Each of us owned at least one T-shirt with a pink stain just below the collar.
Now I compare garden-fresh tomatoes with the salmon-colored clods sold in grocery stores in the wintertime: juiceless boluses with the consistency of a dried sponge, unworthy of throwing, let alone eating.
What is behind the downfall of the commercially grown tomato? As Barry Estabrook's new book, Tomatoland, explains, Big Ag, in meeting consumer demand for tomatoes year-round, is bending nature—and a migrant workforce—to its will. Florida's tomato cartel, which ships more than 1 billion pounds annually to the U.S., Canada and other countries, conspires to sell us pesticide-ridden tomatoes that have been picked, under the best circumstances, by exploited migrant workers, and at worst, by slaves. The 13th Amendment has little standing in Florida's tomato fields.
Estabrook follows the trail of the tomato, traveling to Peru, Florida, California and the northeastern U.S. to understand the evolution of the ancient fruit. Unlike its wild ancestors that were native to the arid highlands of Ecuador and Peru, the Florida tomato has been forced to thrive in the hostile, humid conditions of the Sunshine State. As a result, the tomato has been stripped of all personality and much of its nutritional value. The Florida Tomato Committee dictates that all slicing tomatoes exported from southern Florida in the winter must conform to standards of shape, color and size. Taste, as Estabrook points out, is not considered.
In the fields, conventionally grown Florida tomatoes are deluged with dozens of pesticides and fungicides, some of them known or suspected to cause cancer. Picked when they are mature but green, the tomatoes are then gassed with ethylene, which tomatoes naturally emit in smaller amounts, forcing them to turn red. The tomatoes are then trucked thousands of miles to colder climes, where they are sold to groceries and restaurants.
These tomatoes don't pick themselves (although perhaps Monsanto will develop a genetically modified tomato to do just that). The human rights abuses associated with massive tomato farms are legendary; the growers and owners are rarely prosecuted. Companies, notably Ag-Mart, which operates farms in several states including Florida and North Carolina, allegedly have illegally drenched migrant workers in pesticides as they worked in the fields. Estabrook reports on three women who were exposed to these chemicals when they were pregnant and working in the fields operated by Ag-Mart. Their children were born with severe birth defects; one infant died.
(In 2005, Ag-Mart was cited by the N.C. Department of Agriculture for 364 violations of state pesticide law. An administrative law judge later dismissed most of these charges. Five years later, the state pesticide board and Ag-Mart agreed to a mere $25,000 settlement.)
U.S. Attorney Douglas Molloy tells Estabrook that the town of Immokalee, Fla., is "ground-zero for modern-day slavery, adding that any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave.
Many farmworkers who are trafficked from Mexico are undocumented and can't report their forced servitude. These slaves are often unpaid—their wages offset by costs for decrepit housing—beaten and sometimes killed for defying their owners. Estabrook chronicles a particularly egregious case, which involves several workers' daring escape from a sealed box truck. In that case and several others, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers helped federal prosecutors convict a handful of crew bosses, albeit on lesser charges. The politically connected and economically powerful tomato growers continue to skirt the law and elude accountability.
Can the once-glorious tomato be redeemed? Yes, if we tomato lovers agree to buy sustainably grown and humanely harvested tomatoes. It will not only assuage our conscience, but also appease our palate. (Lest we become complacent, to sate our winter hunger for tomatoes we should can each year's locally grown crop. The carbon footprint associated with transporting produce across the country negates the gains of sustainable growing practices.)
Instead of allowing agribusiness to dictate our eating habits, we consumers should tell agribusiness what we are willing—and unwilling—to eat. By supporting farmers markets, growing our own in backyard gardens and eating in season, we can refuse to participate in an industrialized food system that is unsustainable, unhealthy and inhumane.