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You Say Tomato, I Say Pesticide-Laden, Unsavory Fruit of Slave Labor

You Say Tomato, I Say Pesticide-Laden, Unsavory Fruit of Slave Labor

For most of the country, the dawning of the tomato season is upon us. Proud backyard gardeners are strolling out to their tomato plants to find the beginnings of red globes and heirloom varieties signaling a healthy spring investment, and a promised August payoff (providing insects and fungus remain at bay). And farmer’s markets are showing off some of the early tomatoes and selling them fast as people could say “gazpacho” or “salsa.” But as novel as the appearance of fresh grown summer tomatoes may be for some of us, tomatoes have become a year round mainstay in supermarkets around the country. In fact, walk into a Wal-Mart or any major grocery chain in the dead of winter and you will find impressively red and robust tomatoes piled nose-high and being sold for a reasonable price. So why get so excited about these rarified summer tomatoes when we have something approximately as striking in January as we do in July? Because these year round tomatoes are simply just approximations, and inferior ones at that, of the garden-variety tomatoes that we so covet.

Actually the tomatoes we buy between the months of October and June, most likely came from Florida, the largest industrial tomato growing region in the U.S, and these tomatoes are bred to be perfectly formed and transit hearty enough to find their way into your grocery cart without even a blemish or a bruise. But how do they taste? The answer is they taste pretty awful – less like a tomato and more like a tennis ball with some water content.

In Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, author Barry Estabrook makes sense of our contemporary tomato culture and reveals a less than sustainable, less than desirable, and less than delicious product that is fueled by our unyielding desire for tomato-like objects year round. “For the last 50 or more years, tomato breeders have concentrated essentially on one thing and that is yield — they want plants that yield as many or as much as possible,” writer Barry Estabrook tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “They also want those fruits to be able to stand up to being harvested, packed, artificially turned orange [with ethylene gas] and then shipped away and still be holding together in the supermarket a week or 10 days later.” The result is a tasteless tomato from a high yield crop grown with an assortment of pesticides fertilizers and fungicides in a climate unsuitable for such agriculture.

While this substandard product could easily be thought of as the tragic end to this cycle of supply and demand, there are worse byproducts of this industry, according to Estabrook. “Of the legal jobs available, picking tomatoes is at the very bottom of the economic ladder. I came into this book chronicling a case of slavery in southwestern Florida that came to light in 2007 and 2008. And it was shocking. I’m not talking about near-slavery or slavery-like conditions. I’m talking about abject slavery.” Estabrook goes on to document workers being shackled in chains, being beaten for either not working hard enough, fast enough, or being too weak or sick to work. It sounds outlandish, but it is unfortunately well documented and painfully true – all for that essential component of a BLT in the middle of February.

Whether this information motivates you to eat tomatoes seasonally, and not from some tomato plantation in Florida, is your choice. However, I urge you to check out Tomatoland to gain access to a world, and a product, that reveals as much about us as consumers, as it does about those tasteless red orbs we call tomatoes 9 months out of the year.

Read more: Eating for Health, Following Food, Food, Nature, News & Issues, Vegetarian, , , , , , , , ,

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

77 comments

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8:16AM PDT on Sep 21, 2013

Remember to buy from your local farmers market, then you know where your produce comes from and you can ask about the conditions it was grown in, ie is it organic, what if any pesticides were used, what type of apple/ tomato etc? This way you support your local growers, minimise your footprint with the travel of your food, don't contribute to the big business, no care approach, plus your food tastes delicious!

8:02AM 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/

9:44PM PDT on Jul 30, 2011

Haha, not if they're home grown!

9:53PM PDT on Jul 27, 2011

Wow, I didn't know about slavery in tomato picking... I'm gonna watch the movie. Thanks for the info.

1:27PM PDT on Jul 22, 2011

Oh, Colleen. You say the strangest things. I'm not sure if you have the inside scoop on oxen (I not sure if you are for or against them). Anyway, maybe you should grow your own tomatoes. If you live in a climate that has a cold winter, I'm sure you can still figure out some way to grow tomatoes. Good luck.

5:58AM PDT on Jul 21, 2011

i need tomato for sandwiches. is there more guilt in eating these tomatos or a wild turkey? being on this site has taught me, to some people, animals are worth more than humans

someone using an ox to plow a field is far worse than what these people to through.

11:12PM PDT on Jul 17, 2011

Whether or not you grow your own or don't eat tomatoes, does not stop the treatment of tomato pickers in Florida. That is the issue that needs to be addressed, starting with Florida's governor !
Yes, I agree, if pickers' treatment becomes 'acceptable' that treatment will spread. When you live in a democracy, YOU are the government .....

11:10PM PDT on Jul 17, 2011

Whether or not you grow your own or don't eat tomatoes, does not stop the treatment of tomato pickers in Florida. That is the issue that needs to be addressed, starting with Florida's governor !
Yes, I agree, if pickers' treatment becomes 'acceptable' that treatment will spread. When you live in a democracy, YOU are the government .....

4:34PM PDT on Jul 17, 2011

thanks

7:19PM PDT on Jul 14, 2011

I stopped buying tomatoes from the grocery store some time ago. It just wasn't worth it. I can get strained tomatoes and tomato paste in jars year-round to cook with, but I don't need fresh tomatoes in the dead of winter.

I heard that "Fresh Air" story on NPR. Very enlightening. I somehow missed the part about slave labor. I'll never buy a Florida tomato again. Seriously, what is wrong with us? When did we become so demanding and spoiled that we turn a blind eye to SLAVERY so that we can have tomatoes in April for $3.00 per pound?

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