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What happened to tomatoes?

The rotten underbelly of the tomato industry

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December 20th, 2011

Americans love tomatoes. In 2009, we bought $5 billion worth of commercially grown fresh tomatoes and nine out of ten of our backyard gardens included tomato plants. Talk to any tomato lover about store-bought tomatoes and the inevitable question arises, Where did all the flavor go? Investigative food journalist Barry Estabrook wondered the same thing. How do you take something as wonderful and tasty and sublime as a real tomato and turn it into the tasteless orbs they sell in the supermarket? asks Estabrook. The answer is found in his book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit (Andrews McMeel Publishing).

Taste is secondary

WithTomatoland, Americans are finally getting a no-holds-barred look at what goes into producing that slice of red that tops our burgers and accents our garden salads. As Estabrook details, the lack of flavor in today s crop of tomatoes is the result of science and business working together to create fruits that have a long shelf life and are nearly impervious to bruising or harsh handling. In other words, hearty fruits that growers can easily sell. How the product tastes is an almost secondary concern. The vast majority of the tomatoes Americans eat whole (as opposed to in a sauce or ketchup form) are grown in Florida. The sunshine state s sandy soil lacks the basic nutrients needed to produce good tasting fruit, so farmers rely heavily on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides to give their plants a boost. The high environmental and human cost of this chemical warfare is a fruit that is not only devoid of all recognizable tomato flavor, but one that contains less vitamin C, thiamin, niacin, and calcium and 14 times as much sodium as a tomato grown in the 1960s.

Modern day slavery

That commercial tomatoes are hard and tasteless is by no means a revelation, but to most people, the other main point ofTomatolandis. As Estabrook puts it, If you have ever eaten a tomato during the winter months, you have eaten a fruit picked by a slave. Estabrook is not exaggerating. The biggest surprise of writing this book, he says, was that slavery abject slavery where people are bought and sold, kept in shackles at night, forced to work and beaten if they don t work hard enough still thrives in America, and ground zero for it is the Florida tomato industry. Before writingTomatoland, Estabrook says he watched Edward R. Murrow s seminal documentary filmHarvest of Shame. Other than the fact that the film chronicled African-American farm workers and, today, farm workers are predominantly Hispanic, the parallels are shocking. And that film was made 51 years ago, he says.

Consumer reaction

People are shocked by Estabrook s revelations about the tomato industry. Most people have no idea that this type of thing is going on today right here in America, he says. Workers being sprayed by some of the most toxic pesticides in the arsenal of chemical agriculture. His response, You didn t know because no one wanted you to know. We are kept in the dark because the modern industrial food complex does not want you to think about how your food is produced. So what is a consumer to do? Must we give up tomatoes? No! says Estabrook. Realize that there is a big difference between an out-of-season supermarket tomato and an in-season farmers market tomato and it goes way beyond matters of taste. In all ways, the best tomato is one that grows close to your kitchen counter. If you can t grow your own, shop at the local farmers market or find locally grown, in-season tomatoes in the supermarket. For those who crave the red fleshy fruit year-round, there is one food store that sells tomatoes you can buy with a clear conscience. Of all the supermarkets, Whole Foods is the only one that has signed on to the Fair Food Campaign, says Estabrook. If you shop at Whole Foods, you can be certain that the person who picked your tomato is getting a fair deal. If you buy an organic tomato at Whole Foods you can be assured that it hasn t been sprayed with chemicals nor have the workers who picked it.

Bright spots

Lest you think Tomatolandis all doom and gloom, think again. The book also uncovers fascinating stories of the heroes who are fighting for farm workers rights, the entrepreneurs who are bucking tradition to invest in large-scale organic farms that pay workers living wages, and a maverick Pennsylvania farmer known for his unique heirlooms. It s a must read for anyone who wonders where their tomatoes come from and where the industry is headed. michele.harris@erickson.com

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