I first heard about the book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook in Mark Bittman’s blog that he does for the New York Times. Because the intersection of politics and food writing is one of my favorite types of writing, and of course because I love growing and eating tomatoes fresh from the backyard, I had to read the book.
Just from what Bittman had written in his blog I knew enough to expect very bad things. The book reviews also tipped me off to how horrific the book would be. But nothing really could prepare me for what I would read.
I know I have said it here before and on Twitter that I will not ever buy a supermarket tomato again–and I will not knowingly eat a tomato that comes from growers that do not support those workers. But of course, how can you know, really?
What Estabrook uncovered in his book is that there are several growers in the heart of Florida who systematically exploit workers (I’m sure nothing I say here is yet a surprise). What was a shock is that they are literally enslaved, routinely beaten, regularly promised one thing and then another is delivered, particularly with respect to wages–all the laws that I thought applied in our country do not apply to these workers, particularly when it comes to pesticides.
They are forced to live in the most primitive conditions without air conditioning and sometimes without even plumbing–some were forced to live in the backs of truck trailers sleeping on pallets where the temperatures routinely exceeded 100 degrees and there was no ventilation.
As for the pesticides–tomatoes are one of a few crops where a very toxic chemical–methyl bromide–that has been banned by the EPA is still permitted to be used–the others are strawberries and peppers. The tomato plants are routinely sprayed while workers are in the fields–and workers are often working on plants dripping with wet pesticides. Needless to say, the rate of illness among the workers is high and birth defects among their children is staggering.
Nevertheless, if workers were too ill to work, the “overseerers” beat them for “refusing” to work. Sound a bit like something that existed in the south prior to the Civil War to me. And Florida refuses to do much to help these poor workers–and many, because of their immigration status, refuse to ask for help.
Regardless of how you feel about the immigration issue, human beings should not be exploited in this manner–and we have seen what happens, most recently in Alabama, when farmers try to get local residents to help in the field. It was a disaster. Unfortunately until we get local workers used to farm work–and safe conditions in which they can work–this is the circumstance in which we find ourselves.
Estabrook begins and ends the book hunting for wild tomatoes in Peru. He also spends a small portion of the book talking about the US Supreme court case that legally declared that although botanically the tomato is a fruit, for commodity’s sake, it is a vegetable. It has always been known as a vegetable since then.
The book is a fascinating, if truly disturbing, look at the commoditization of a crop. There have been some advances made in the treatment of these workers thanks to the good works of lawyers and worker rights groups in Florida. And it is safe to buy tomatoes at Trader Joes and Whole Foods because they have signed a pledge to trade fairly with these workers. But otherwise, I’d stay away from supermarket tomatoes because you can never know whether they have come from one of these major agri-businesses who treat their workers worse than cattle and poison the earth, the tomatoes and the workers with toxic pesticides.