Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2011.
As someone who has purchased winter tomatoes here in the snowy north just for the sake of a little colour on the plate, I was interested in learning where those tasteless orbs come from and at what cost. The answer for many tomatoes is that they come from Florida, Estabrook’s Tomatoland, and the cost to workers and the environment is considerable. Tomatoland is a thorough exploration of the tomato business, written in a clear and well-organized manner that covers pretty much every aspect of the topic imaginable. I especially enjoyed the many portraits Estabrook offers of the people he interviews, everyone from farm owners to field workers to university researchers. They really bring the narrative to life.
Estabrook first looks at the tomato itself and offers a little bit of history about this favorite fruit. You would think that there is plenty of variety available in heirloom tomatoes, big ones and small ones, orange ones and green striped ones, but when it comes right down to it, these plants are all closely related and represent less than 5 per cent of the genes of wild tomato species. Those genes that could be used to improve cultivated tomatoes are being lost through the ever-expanding habitat loss and degradation that lead to species extinction.
Tomatoes are not a crop well-suited to the sandy soil and humid environment of Florida. What makes Florida a tomato centre is its proximity to the population centres of the eastern seaboard where an out-of-season winter tomato is welcomed with open wallet. It was in 1880 that Joel Hendrix first shipped green tomatoes to New York City and led the way for the development of the Florida tomato industry.
To produce tomatoes in an inhospitable environment, the soil is first treated with methyl bromide to kill nematodes. Methyl bromide is a potent poison and its use contributes to the depletion of the ozone layer, and its use was supposed to have been phased out. However, Florida growers have been granted a ‘critical use exemption’. Its alternative, methyl iodide, is a carcinogenic known to be one of the most toxic compounds employed in chemical manufacturing. From this beginning a toxic brew of chemical fertilizers and pesticides is added. Many of these chemicals are still on tomatoes when they reach the market. Tomatoes are picked as ‘mature greens’ and exposed to ethylene in gassing chambers to ‘degreen’ them.
Workers who labour in the tomato fields are exposed to these chemicals daily. Laws limiting worker exposure to pesticides are poorly enforced. Most are illegal migrant labourers who work for minimum wage and receive virtually no legal protection. Many live in seriously sub-standard housing. Land owners distance themselves from labourers by hiring middlemen, crew leaders who oversee workers and pay out wages. This opens the system to an array of abuses, the worst being slavery.
Human traffickers enslave workers by entrapping them in a web of debt, charging monstrous rates for housing and food and then withholding wages until the ‘debt’ is paid. Enslaved workers are locked up between work days and threatened with violence against themselves or their families. The conviction rate against traffickers who practise this highly profitable racket is very low.
The question the consumer who buys the end product may ask is why are these tomatoes so flavourless? The answer is that decades of research have all been directed at meeting the producers’ requirements and taste is not important. What makes for good taste anyway? Estabrook turns to researchers at the University of Florida for insight. Taste, it seems, is a complicated thing, a combination of sugars and acids and the trace chemicals (volatiles) you can smell. I found the discussion of taste and the research that the search for a tastier tomato has engendered very interesting. Estabrook also looks at alternatives to the status quo, from organic farming to better housing for workers.
Tomatoland is a must-read for tomato lovers and highly recommended for any one interested in the inside story of industrial food production.