Tomatoland – how modern industrial agriculture destroyed our most alluring fruit

16 January 2012 - 5:54pm -- Gerry Danby
Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook

Investigative food journalist Barry Estabrook exposes the “human and environmental cost of the $5 billion fresh tomato industry” in this compelling account. I picked up Tomatoland thinking it to be simply a book about the industrialisation of a favourite food, but it is much, much more and provides a graphic account of the politics of production and the exploitation, oppression and, yes, slavery of ordinary workers involved in putting Florida tomatoes on supermarket shelves.

Estabrook’s journey starts with an earlier recollection of driving behind a truck in Florida piled high with green tomatoes and observing that those which fell on the highway suffered hardly a blemish. He goes on to trace the origins of the tomato in Peru and recount the work of the Rick Center at the University of California Davis which holds a library of 3,600 specimens of Solanum chilense.

Estabrook carefully charts the life of the Florida tomato, the source of a third of US fresh tomatoes, grown in a soil devoid of nitrogen, that holds no water, is infested with pests, bacteria and fungal diseases, simply because it is warm enough in Florida at a time of the year when nowhere else in the US can grow tomatoes.

The season starts in April when the land lays fallow, with a little help from the herbicide Roundup, till July. Farmers then ‘inoculate’ the land with a fertiliser containing nitrogen and potassium and tractors carve raised beds in the soil before the remaining fertiliser is applied. The beds are then fumigated with methyl bromide, which kills everything in the soil and can kill people in small concentrations, before being sealed beneath a layer of plastic mulch. The five week old tomato seedlings are then planted by farmworkers sitting six abreast on the rear of another tractor. The regular application of an array of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides comes next, these are commonly found on tomatoes at the point of sale in supermarkets.

The harvest starts 10 or more weeks after planting. Picked while still green and hard the tomatoes are taken to a packinghouse to be washed in a warm chlorine solution to kill bacteria, graded, blow dried and gassed with ethylene to give the appearance of ripeness. “Taste does not enter the equation” says Estabrook.

More compelling are the detailed accounts Estabrook gives of the lives and working conditions of the ordinary farmworkers who scratch a living from this trade. The catalogue of hardship endured is hard to take in: intolerable working conditions and a rate of pay that has not changed in 30 years well below the minimum wage, frequent exposure to high doses of highly toxic chemicals with inadequate training or safety precautions, women workers giving birth to babies with crippling birth defects, dire living conditions with no running water or sanitation, complaints result in being fired and, in one district the local US attorney has up to 12 cases of slavery at any given time. A modest number of significant victories challenging the corporations behind the system give cause for hope, but there is a long way to go.

Estabrook provides a detailed, copiously researched and referenced account, that makes for an authoritative work on the subject. While we may try and content ourselves that Florida tomatoes and the things Estabrook chronicles are far away, we know the practices described are used the world over. There are also plenty of well documented stories about the exploitation of migrant workers across Europe engaged in agriculture. In the UK perhaps the most notorious case was that of the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers in which the lives of 23 migrant workers were lost.

It may be the story of a Florida tomato but I bet you will never pick up another supermarket tomato and see it in quite the same way after reading Estabrook’s account. But rather than make a depressing read, Estabrook highlights the work of some exceptional people, provides some hope and makes for a rousing cry for action!

Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook, published by Andrews McMeel 2011 ISBN: 978-1-4494-0109-2

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