Last summer, I listened to part of an interview with Barry Estabrook on the NPR show “Fresh Air.” I bought a copy of his book for my Kindle and promptly forgot about it for awhile.
So a few days ago I was browsing my “To Read” collection, which consists primarily of free public domain classics that I keep telling myself I'm really going to read some day. Hidden between The Time Machine and Treasure Island was my forgotten gem from last June: Tomatoland: How Modern Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. My cloudy memories indicated that this book was about why supermarket tomatoes are tasteless. But there was so much more.
I'm never going to buy a Florida-grown agribusiness tomato again.
Or one from Mexico, for that matter. From here on out it's CSA tomatoes, or farmers' market tomatoes, or organic supermarket tomatoes. Or organic canned. Or no tomatoes at all.
A good portion of Tomatoland is devoted to how awful life can be for the migrant workers who pick tomatoes in the Florida fields. One problem is exposure to dangerous chemicals in the form of pesticides; farmers in Florida use eight times as many chemicals on their crops as those in California (where canning tomatoes are grown). Many of these pesticides are carcinogens, and can cause illness and severe birth defects. Compounding the problem are growers who flaunt the regulations surrounding the use of said chemicals by not properly training the workers who actually use them, sending workers into the fields while the plants are still wet with fresh pesticides, or spraying while the workers are still in the fields.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing chapters in Tomatoland is the one dealing with slavery. Not just rough working conditions, but actual slavery, an institution I naively believed had died out with the end of the Civil War. One of the migrant towns detailed extensively in this book is Immokalee, “ground zero for modern-day slavery.”
[US attorney Douglas Molloy] says 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. “That's not an assumption... That is a fact.”
I didn't know there were any documented and proven cases of modern slavery, but this book discusses several that have been successfully prosecuted in the last decade.
Migrant workers are also poorly compensated for the work they do. Most pickers are paid on a “piece basis” system, earning a certain amount per container of fruit picked. By law, the total amount must equal out to the state minimum wage of $7.25/hour.
At the going rate in 2008 of forty to sixty cents per thirty-two pound bucket, a harvester would have to pick about three thousand tomatoes each hour—nearly one per second. He would have to fill a bushel-size bucket, run over to the truck, dump it, and run back to his assigned row every two minutes.
The author follows the saga to establish the Campaign for Fair Food, a project of the Coalition ofImmokalee Workers. The idea is that if supermarket chains and fast food restaurants would be willing to pay just one penny more per pound for their tomatoes, it could mean a world of difference to the workers who picked them. The Campaign for Fair Food has gained substantial ground over the years, winning over major fast food chains and large grocery stores; one of their most recent accomplishments is getting Trader Joe's to sign on. (But what took you so long, TJ's??)
The book is not all doom and gloom. There is a lovely chapter on the ancestors of the modern tomato, the history of how tomatoes became so popular, and the efforts of the Rick Center at the University of California Davis, which catalogs and stores tomato seeds of all imaginable varieties. There is a chapter devoted to modern efforts to breed taste back into industrial tomatoes, as well as the chronicle of one farm that manages to produce good tasting tomatoes in mass quantities in a mostly-organic fashion. There are stories about the men and women who are actively working to improve the lives of migrant farm workers, through the establishment of decent and affordable housing, by providing childcare, or through legal action to get justice for those who have been wronged by the big tomato growers. These chapters, while heartening, are not nearly as engrossing as the chapters on the “bad stuff.”
So add this to the list of subjects I now care deeply about. I had no idea that the Florida tomato industry was so insidious. But I am glad that I finally got to read this book, and I recommend it to anyone who cares about where their food comes from. You, too, may swear off Florida tomatoes forever.