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Slave Labor in Tomatoland

Slave Labor in Tomatoland
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If you live in the United States and you eat fresh tomatoes in the wintertime, you’ve almost certainly tasted a tomato that was picked by a slave.

“That’s not an assumption. That’s a fact,” reveals U.S. District Attorney Douglas Molloy to former Gourmet magazine contributing editor Barry Estabrook in Estabrook’s book, Tomatoland. Molloy is a veteran government prosecutor with more than a decade of experience dealing with crime in Immokalee, Florida, a town at the center of Florida’s tomato industry. And he calls Immokalee “ground zero for modern day slavery.”

Roughly 90 percent of the slicing tomatoes sold in the winter in the United States come from industrial farms in the Sunshine State. To ensure they survive the long journey from balmy Florida to places as far away as Detroit or Seattle with nary a dent, the perfectly round, perfectly red winter tomatoes that line supermarket shelves and feed fast food restaurant customers in northern states in December are actually picked while green and hard. Later, these unripe tomatoes are gassed en masse in warehouses with ethylene — the same gas tomato plants produce naturally when their fruits are ripening — to turn them prematurely red. (If you’ve ever wondered why supermarket tomatoes in winter taste vaguely like tomato-colored wood pulp, this common industry practice would be a big reason why.)

Tomatoes are big business in Florida. Florida farmers ship about one billion pounds of tomatoes out of the state each year — a major source of income for the state. Yet in Florida, industrial tomato farmers’ profits are under constant threat. Though Florida is one of the few states in the U.S. where the climate is naturally warm enough to grow tomatoes in the wintertime, in many other ways Florida’s environment is downright inhospitable to the tomato.

Florida’s sandy soil lacks nitrogen, an element tomatoes depend on in large quantities for survival. So farmers in Florida pump their fields full of artificial, petroleum-based fertilizers to keep their plants alive. When the price of oil rises, so does the price of fertilizer, taking a bite of an industrial tomato farm’s profits.

Florida’s constantly humid air welcomes fungi that attack tomatoes; its mild winters allow insect pests that eat to thrive. As a consequence, Florida tomato farmers spray their crops with tons of expensive — and toxic — herbicides and pesticides. And all this investment in the expensive tools of industrial agriculture’s chemical warfare can be wiped out in one night, with a single hard freeze. One in January 2010 destroyed nearly the entire state’s crop.

And, unlike heartier crops, like soybeans or corn, or tomatoes for canning, tomatoes for the fresh grocery and restaurant market cannot be harvested mechanically — to avoid damage, tomatoes must be picked by human hands. Every fresh tomato an American purchases was hand-picked by another person.

The owners of Florida’s industrial tomato farms can’t control the price of oil, or the prevalence of pests, or the weather. But, thanks to antiquated U.S. labor laws that exempt farm workers from many of the income and safety protections other American workers enjoy, the owners of Florida’s tomato farms can exercise a lot of control over one thing — the wages and the hours of their workers.

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Photo of sliced tomatoes by Scott Bauer, from the USDA. Public domain. Photo of green tomatoes copyright 2010 by Jaelithe Judy. Used with permission.

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138 comments

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7:53AM PDT on Sep 21, 2013

Help put an end to slavery; sign my petition to tell Nestlé that we want slavery-free chocolate:

http://www.thepetitionsite.com/431/525/548/sell-slavery-free-chocolate/

6:46AM PST on Feb 12, 2012

If anyone thinks slavery really ended in 1865, think again.

8:45AM PST on Feb 10, 2012

Makes me happy I can't eat tomatoes!

12:00AM PDT on Sep 22, 2011

Evan M. Are you for real or a poster boy for Floridian Slave Owners Association?

10:29PM PDT on Sep 18, 2011

Yuck.

3:41PM PDT on Sep 14, 2011

this is no fun. animal rights people aren't cheering "horrah for mistreatment of migrant workers! but they still get it better than animals"

4:04PM PDT on Sep 12, 2011

Now about this guy estabrook. I agree there are mega farms here in Florida that have worn out their soil, but a lot of the farms that grow maters are family owned and turning to more sustainable farming practices.
The soil here, sand yes, at the beach and along the ridge that runs along the western side ofthe state. The majority of the rest of the state has soil suitable for good crop production.
Fossil fuel based fertilizer? Come on estabrook followers! Fossil fuel based means it takes fossil fuel to make the electricity to make the fertilzer. You can't make fertilizer from petroleum. And do you really think the plant says "Ew, I'm not using that nitrogen cuz they made it with fossil fuel, I want that organic nitrogen!" Come on man! Nitrogen is nitrogen is nitrogen, period. It just depends on which business you want to give your money to.
My guess is that estabrook is employed by or owns a "Organic business". Be careful who you listen to people.

3:35PM PDT on Sep 12, 2011

Holy smoke!!! I can't believe the compost that flows from some people. Quit ragging on Florida. Have you ever seen the sugar beet fields in Idaho, or the blueberry farms in Michigan, or the many fields and orchards in California, or the peach orchards in Utah? The list goes on and on. Get real people. If there weren't migrant farm workers, you wouldn't eat, period. Do you really think that their conditions are better where they came from? I've worked along side them, I've lived with them, and I've worshipped with them. Believe me, they are far better than the "smart" northerners that have destroyed the old Florida that I once knew. To all you belly aching yankees, 75 & 95 go north. Don't stop till you cross the state line thank you.

10:32AM PDT on Sep 11, 2011

Such a sad state of affairs, but we must act to get rid of this system.

11:23PM PDT on Sep 10, 2011

It is slave labor. I do not eat tomatoes in the winter, only when I can grow them or get them locally. Don't mean to sound prissy, but that is one of the rules of being environmentally ethical: don't eat out of season.

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