Before you reach for one of those perfectly round and red orbs of tasteless flesh that is only barely reminiscent of actual tomato flavor you must read Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.
The modern tomato is an amazing thing. In general, the tomatoes that populate the shelves in a supermarket’s produce section taste nothing like what we think of when imagining a tomato. Why? Because as Barry Estabrook chronicles in his most excellent book the modern tomato is a strange mash-up of everything wrong with modern agriculture.
First, the primary site for growing tomatoes in the United States is actually ill-suited for growing tomatoes. Huh? Yep, Florida is a horrible place to grow tomatoes. The soil is little more than sand, so it does not hold nutrients or water very well unlike the soils of more northern climes. The climate also does wonders for nurturing parasites and diseases that can devastate crops, so the solution is to bathe the fruit in a chemical soup.
Second, the varieties bred for modern tomato farming have the desired trait of being durable in shipping. However, a tomato gets its flavor from the delicate balance of flesh and watery insides. Breeding the fruit to be durable for shipping emphasizes hard flesh at the expense of flavorful guts thus creating a dense orb of little flavor. As the author illustrates, green tomatoes can fly off the back of trucks and hit the roadway with nary a scratch. Try that with an heirloom tomato off the vine of your home garden.
Third, the modern tomato industrial complex picks the fruit when it is green and achieves a red color through the use of ethylene gas. Therefore, the red color has absolutely nothing to do with ripeness and everything to do with marketing.
The story would be compelling enough if the death of flavorful tomatoes were all the Estabrook were concerned with documenting in his book. However, the most harrowing tale comes not from the tomatoes but from the people who work the fields in Florida picking the fruit.
Primarily focused on the community of tomato field workers centered around Immokalee the book details the barbaric conditions these people endure every day. In some cases it is modern day slavery. Think about that the next time you reach for a little package of Santa Sweets in the produce section. Amazingly, these conditions seem to primarily focus on the fresh tomato industry and not the tomatoes destined for cans or sauce. Apparently it is an entirely different regime according to Estabrook.
So, we have a modern agricultural industry that is producing a product no one thinks is any good—find me one person who likes the tasteless orbs of rock hard red flesh—and is treating people horribly. Why? Because we like to get tomatoes in January in Iowa.
I think the solution to the problem is simple. Not to sound like a broken record, but if you are buying in season produce from local suppliers there is no danger of you participating in this system. Maybe your vendor at the farmers’ market is using forced labor or buying produce from an unscrupulous supplier, but I have not heard of any such incidence here in good ol’ Iowa.
If you want to learn more please check out the Center for Immokalee Workers. This grassroots organization is doing great things in brining attention to the plight of farm workers in Florida’s tomato belt. The organization has also been effective in getting major corporations to step up and pay a little bit more per pound to help alleviate the worst of the conditions affecting the workers around Immokalee.
One more thing, why doesn’t Chipotle sign up to pay workers a little bit extra—as little as 1 cent per pound of tomatoes—when it is already a pioneer in bringing more sustainable and equitable food to its counters? It is shameful that the company has thus far resisted.