Barry Estabrooks, Tomatoland

It's a great collection of articles, Barry Estabrook's 2011 book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, plus the undoubtedly publisher-decreed subtitle both (a) offers a reason not to read the whole book, since it seems to give away the whole game, and (b) misrepresents the book's core. An uneven experience, is what I'm saying Tomatoland gives its reader, but it's still essential reading for anyone with some interest in food production.

The book, incidentally, can't be confused with the online Tomatoland, "the world tomato industry internet marketplace" (account required to get past the front page). At bottom, Estabrook engages here in a lengthy indictment of industrial agriculture generally, with the tomato as his case study. Much of what he argues about tomato farming in Florida can be argued about other monocultural agriculture, wherever there's extreme use of pesticides and an intense reliance on chemical fertilizer; it's just that the Florida tomato is the reductio ad absurdum of food farming.

To recap: The soil in Florida contains a lot of sand and extraordinarily little organic content, so the water-intensive and fertilizer-intensive production of tomatoes there is basically outdoor hydroponics on a massive scale. The race to the bottom, price-wise, means that the industry has adopted a plethora of shady, unethical, and criminal practices, and it's hard to see why I shouldn't say that these things are the norm.

Up to 40% of tomatoes sliced into North American's commercial salads and sandwiches, especially at fast food restaurants, come from Florida, so we are guaranteed to have eaten tomatoes whose growth has caused migrant farmworkers to be sprayed illegally with assorted chemicals while they work (proven, not alleged); has caused stillbirths and birth defects among workers' children (also proven, not alleged); and has been watched over by slave labour, in 21st-century America (again: proven, not alleged).

Wait, I can hear you saying: slavery?

The district attorney for Florida's Middle District, which includes the key tomato town of Immokalee (pronounced like "broccoli," apparently), is working on "six to twelve slavery cases" (p.75). Migrant workers are tied to trees, chained for the night inside cube vans, beaten almost to death for attempting to escape (to serve as a lesson), and so on. According to DA Douglas Molloy, "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,' he told [Estabrooks]. 'That's a fact.'"

As Geraldo Reyes tells Estabrooks in a later chapter, too, "it [is] wrong to view slavery in Florida's fields as a series of isolated cases. Rather, he explained, slavery is an inherent part of an economic system built on the ruthless exploitation of its workers" (p.98).

Yummy, green tomatoes!
On the question of chemicals and growing practices, I don't have the heart even to write about them. Let me say only that tomatoes in Florida are picked when they're large and round, but not even the tiniest bit pink; then shrinkwrapped into one-ton pallet-loads of 80 boxes per pallet, they're exposed in a warehouse to ethylene gas in a high enough concentration that they look ripe enough to trick a consumer. At heart, though, they're still green, and we're stupid stupid stupid for buying them.

The book ends with some good news chapters, one on successful near-massive organic farming of tomatoes in Florida (it can be done!), one on the collection of wild seed specimens from South America (we can save the tomato!), one on gourmet local tomato farming outside New York City (tomatoes are for the elites!), but.... Maybe Estabrooks believes in those chapters, but I was broken before I got to them, and in consequence they read like requiems and apologia best used to puff local organic farmers and the upscale restaurants who buy their produce.

Western industrial agriculture is a doomed piece in a doomed enterprise, the early chapters propose, and the late chapters simply cannot overcome the annihilation the early ones have exposed.

A valuable book, but Christ.


theresa said…
I read this after planting out the last of my tomato seedlings so it was both troubling and sad. There are so many amazing tomato cultivars -- ones smuggled into North America from eastern European countries during the Cold War, old varieties for which the seed was kept year after year by devoted gardeners, Broad Ripple Yellow Currant found in a sidewalk crack in a big American city (and found by my son at a farmer's market in Ottawa and saved from last year's crop, some of them passed along to me), delicious meaty tomatoes shaped like ox hearts or else black-shouldered or striped like zebras or coloured like fine ripe persimmons.

As for the slavery, it's astonishing and awful. And we don't have a lot of power as individuals apart from not buying the products and writing those endless letters to endless blank recipients (I did it for years to protest dirty chocolate and am glad to see that little by little things are changing. Not quickly enough but still...). Maybe when we band together, we have more power? Closer to home, we have the mushroom growers and the damage done to workers who are exposed to noxious gases, the agricultural workers in the Fraser Valley who slip under fair labour laws (though Jim Sinclair speaks loudly about the issue), and...well, I could go on forever. Small steps. And hope.

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