Tomatoes grow wild, in an impressive but dwindling variety, on the dry West coast of South America. You can still find ancestral tomatoes growing on the side of the road there, as the author Barry Estabrook did while researching Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. As the title suggests, a whimsical history of the tomato, this is not. He dispenses with the interesting anecdotes (we think of tomatoes as vegetables, not as the fruit they are, in great part because the Supreme Court deemed it thus, in an 1893 case that defended domestic tomato growers from competition from Cuba) in the first chapter, and then gets on to his real story, which is about how badly we treat the environment, and especially the workers, needed to grow off-season winter tomatoes in Florida.
Tomatoland is a very good title. The subtitle could have been better if it specified that the story is, for the most part, narrowly focused on Florida, where the winter tomato crop for the East Coast originates. There, the soil is poor and sandy, the weather often unforgiving and the pests prolific, so farmers have resorted to a variety of chemicals to make their crops flourish. These chemicals include some of the harshest still on the market, and they've often been used with too little regard for their effects on the workers asked to use them (or stand by, picking tomatoes, as sprayers fog them). Accounts of heartbreaking birth defects ensue.
You can really stop at any point during the narrative and decide that you've bought your last supermarket tomato, but Estabrook is just warming up. Modern-day slavery and its nearly-as-bad derivatives make up the bulk of his tale, centered on Immokalee, Fla., where most winter tomatoes are grown. He describes workers who speak neither English nor, in many cases, Spanish, being trucked in illegally from Mexico, and held in a state of indentured servitude, as they rack up living expenses charged by farmers or their charges that exceed their wages. They're sprayed by pesticides, occasionally beaten and made to wait hours unpaid before being asked to pick tomatoes at super-human rates for less-than-human wages. As described, it's a shocking and shameful tragedy.
All this to grow tomatoes that have been bred to be picked green, trucked across the country and "ripen" to a reddish hue only after being gassed with ethylene. That is, not bred to taste good. Taste, as one grower tells the author, has never been a priority.
The narrative is so enraging and compelling that it's easy to lose sight of the progress that's been made; Estabrook describes how the Coalition of Immakolee Workers waged successful public relations campaigns targeting very visible end-users of tomatoes, like Taco Bell and Burger King, in order to pressure growers to offer better wages and living conditions. It worked, but the success story is dwarfed by the tragedy story, leaving the reader with a sour taste about tomatoes that is perhaps less deserved today than it was in years past.
That said, the broad failure to develop tasty tomatoes that can be grown without heavy chemical use or without resorting to inhumane labor stands as a lasting indictment. Unfortunately, Esstabrook's solution to the problem seems somewhat unconvincing. He profiles tomato geneticists trying to create better-tasting tomatoes that can be grown at a large scale, and he profiles organic tomato growers, one in in Florida and one in Pennsylvania, who are trying to produce better and more ethical tomatoes, albeit at much higher prices. It's hard to imagine their work succeeding at a mass scale in the near term, but then again the David-and-Goliath success of the Coalition of Immakolee Workers could stand as an optimistic precursor to the issues the industry has yet to face.
As a book, Tomatoland is a brisk read, engrossing as it is enraging. The one quibble, beyond the somewhat-unconvincing presentation of solutions, is the "Building a Better Tomato" chapter, which reads like a series of interviews that didn't quite fit the rest of the book. Maybe fleshing the anecdotes out would have made the book too long (I might not have met the challenge of a book on this topic that was longer than this slender 193 pages). Maybe cutting them would have left the book too short. So skim that chapter and spend your time focusing on what is otherwise an absorbing account of the strange way we've come to grow one of our favorite
Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit ($12 at amazon.com)
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