August 21, 2011 – Tomatoland

Ever wonder about those things called “tomatoes” you get in the grocery store in the winter and wonder how they could be so different than the one you get in the garden?

There’s a new book out that ties together many of the problems of  “industrial agriculture.”  The book is called Tomatoland and you can read an except and hear an interview with the author.

The issues are interwoven, and repeated with many common foods, namely pork and eggs in Iowa.  The problems exposed in the book relate to taste and nutrition, human rights, environmental degradation, and human health, among others.

Without further ado, some comments from the NPR story and book:

As one large Florida farmer said, ‘I don’t get paid a single cent for flavor.’ “He said, ‘I get paid for weight. And I don’t know of any supermarket shopper who tastes her tomatoes before she puts them in her shopping cart.’ … It’s not worth commercial plant breeders’ while to breed for taste because their customers — the large farmers — don’t get paid for it.

Florida applies more than eight times the amount of pesticide and herbicides as does California, the next leading tomato grower in the country. Part of this has to do with the fact that California processes tomatoes that are used for canning — and therefore don’t have to look as good as their Florida counterparts. But part of this also has to do with consumers.

“It’s the price we pay for insisting we have food out of season and not local,” he says. “We foodies and people in the sustainable food movement chant these mantras, ‘local, seasonable, organic, fair-trade, sustainable,’ and they almost become meaningless because they’re said so often and you see them in so many places. If you strip all those away, they do mean something, and what they mean is that you end up with something like a Florida tomato in the winter — which is tasteless.”

“My mother, in the ’60s could buy a tomato in the supermarket that had 30 to 40 percent more vitamin C and way more niacin and calcium. The only area that the modern industrial tomato beats its Kennedy-administration counterpart is in sodium.”

“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. These were people who were bought and sold. These were people who were shackled in chains at night or locked in the back of produce trucks with no sanitary facilities all night.

“These were people who were forced to work whether they wanted to or not and if they didn’t, they were beaten severely. If they tried to escape, they were either beaten worse or in some cases, they were killed. And they received little or no pay. It sounds like 1850. … There have been seven [legal cases] in the last 10 or 15 years … successfully brought to justice in Florida involving slavery. And 1,200 people have been freed. The U.S. Attorney for the district in Southern Florida claims that that just represents a tiny, tiny tip of an iceberg because it’s extraordinarily difficult to prosecute a modern-day slavery case.”

In Vermont, where I live, as in much of the rest of the United States, a gardener can select pretty much any sunny patch of ground, dig a small hole, put in a tomato seedling, and come back two months later and harvest something. Not necessarily a bumper crop of plump, unblemished fruits, but something. When I met Monica Ozores-Hampton, a vegetable specialist with the University of Florida, I asked her what would happen if I applied the same laissez-faire horticultural practices to a tomato plant in Florida. She shot me a sorrowful, slightly condescending look and replied, “Nothing.”

“Nothing?” I asked.

“There would be nothing left of the seedling,” she said. “Not a trace. The soil here doesn’t have any nitrogen, so it wouldn’t have grown at all. The ground holds no moisture, so unless you watered regularly, the plant would certainly die. And, if it somehow survived, insect pests, bacteria, and fungal diseases would destroy it.” How can it be, then, that Florida is the source for one-third of the fresh tomatoes Americans eat? How did tomatoes become the Sunshine State’s most valuable vegetable crop, accounting for nearly one-third of the total revenue generated?

Enjoy those summer tomatoes! In the next few days, we’ll take to the garden to pick the first batch for canning.
one year ago…”Canning Raspberries”