Photograph by Enoch Lau, from Wikimedia Commons
In 2007, James McWilliams, author of Just Food: How Locavores are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, penned a controversial op-ed in The New York Times, arguing that food miles are irrelevant. Since then, other writers have gone on to criticize that theory (and some of McWilliams' other ideas as well), but one of the most powerful arguments against industrial agriculture (at least as it is currently practiced) is Barry Estabrook's new book, Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.
It's a familiar complaint: the tastelessness of the fast-food or grocery-store tomato. If you've never eaten a homegrown tomato, you can be forgiven for thinking tomatoes are kind of gross. And if you're one of those people who plants them in March, insulating them with a Wall-o-Water, you can be forgiven for avoiding tomatoes after October, when they've disappeared from farmer's markets and your backyard. Card-carrying locavore or not, flavor alone convinces people of the superiority of the backyard tomato over its paler, staler cousin.
But maybe flavor should be the least our our worries when considering tomatoes. In Tomatoland, Estabrook travels to Immokalee, Florida, "the tomato capital of the United States," and finds "a nine-block grid of dusty, potholed streets lined by boarded-up bars and bodegas, peeling shacks, and sagging, mildew-streaked house trailers," housing a mostly Latino population. These are the people who pick the lion's share of America's tomatoes. The plants are grown in Florida's sandy soil, which is essentially dead—that means it requires constant applications of over 100 different fertilizers and pesticides. (After all, it's hard to grow much of anything in a pile of sand, especially a heavy-feeding plant like Solanum lycopersicum.) When the tomatoes go to market, they are chemically treated once again with ethylene, to turn them red. For all the jokes about grocery store tomatoes tasting like foam peanuts, one wonders if packing excelsior might make a more nutritious—and less chemical-laden—addition to a BLT.
But Tomatoland isn't a polemical screed; it's a rich weave of history and human stories. Estabrook describes the earliest cultivated tomatoes, which grew in Peru, Chile and Ecuador, and were tiny; he writes about the tomato in relation to the Civil War. He profiles the ex-military man who heads the Florida Tomato Committee, which prohibits Florida farmers from growing flavorful, but less uniform varieties, and the farmer who lovingly grows those tasty but unpredictable fruits for fancy restaurants. But the heart of the book concerns the workers in Imokalee, who are sometimes literally forced into slavery to supply supermarkets with tomatoes 12 months out of the year, a situation that Estabrook initially described in a piece for Gourmet magazine. That article, which blossomed into this book, not only won Estabrook a James Beard award, but inspired Ruth Reichl to say it was her proudest moment as an editor, ever. (You can read it here.)
Tomatoland's descriptions of present-day Immokalee are eerily reminiscent of passages from another book published in 2011—Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns, which chronicled America's Great Migration and the deplorable conditions of the Jim Crow South. One of Wilkerson's interviewees, George Starling, was born in Florida, worked as an orange picker, and organized the workers and was almost murdered for it (he relocated to New York City for his personal safety, not to mention his sanity). It is sad to think that the tradition of worker abuse has followed us into the 21st century. Though the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, organized in the 1990s, when beatings of workers were commonplace, has managed to improve working conditions and raise wages, slavery is still widely practiced in Florida agriculture. Estabrook says that when he asked Florida chief assistant U.S. attorney Douglas Molloy "if it is reasonable to assume that an American who has eaten a fresh tomato from a grocery store or food-service company during the winter has eaten fruit picked by the hand of a slave," he was told, “It is not an assumption. It is a fact.”
McWilliams and other critics of local food almost always come back to one argument: that the industrial food system is the only way to keep the exploding global population fed. The problem is, our current super-efficient food system is not doing a good job of preventing hunger...and not because of crop shortages. As Estabrooks observed in the article for Gourmet, the irony is that growers are so focused on keeping prices down for consumers, they are literally paying their workers with starvation wages. "Workers who pick the food we eat," Estabrook observes, "can’t afford to feed themselves." Which, no matter how you calculate the food miles on that one, is just too high a price to pay for a tomato.
We're on the cusp of tomato season, and Missouri tomatoes will soon be everywhere, including the Tower Grove, Maplewood, and Soulard Farmers Markets. We welcome you to post in the comments below, and tell us what you're growing, and why.