How the modern day tomato came to be
September 8th, 2011
09:10 AM ET
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For a response from the industry, read Why tomatoes grow in Florida

In the sultry summer heat, there are few flavors more welcome than that of a burstingly fresh, sloppy, sweet, tangy, locally grown tomato. In the winter, though, their grocery store equivalent is barely recognizable as the same fruit. They're hard, uniformly round and almost inevitably taste-free.

They're also mostly trucked in from Florida, where they're grown in some challenging agricultural conditions, and where the industry has come under scrutiny for their labor practices.

Barry Estabrook, author of 'Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit' spoke with Eatocracy about this came to be.

Eatocracy: How did you become invested in telling the story of the modern day tomato?

Estabrook: I became interested in tomatoes when I was in fact attacked by a group of tomatoes. I was driving down an interstate highway in Southwestern Florida and come up behind what I thought at first was a gravel truck. As I got closer, I saw what I took for Granny Smith apples - and I thought, "Those don't grow in Florida." When I got really close, I saw it was full of bright green tomatoes. No pink - just green.

I was mesmerized, and then the truck hit a bump. Three tomatoes came flying off and nearly went through my windshield. I noticed that they hit the pavement on I-75, bounced and then rolled into the ditch.

They didn't shatter, they didn't splatter; they stayed intact. I thought, "My God! What have they done to this wonderful fruit?"

Eatocracy: Are these the same round, red tomatoes that we see in grocery stores?

Estabrook: Winter tomatoes that we get in our grocery stores and in fast food places are picked when they're bright green. Any hint of coloration is treasonous in a Florida tomato field in the winter. The industry says they're "mature green" and supposedly might develop flavor, but there's no way the pickers can tell the difference between mature and immature.

These green tomatoes are taken back to a warehouse, packed in boxes, which are stacked on pallets and moved into storage areas where they're exposed to ethylene gas. The gas forces the tomatoes to turn the right color; it doesn't ripen them.

Eatocracy: Does this account for the lack of flavor in the modern day tomato?

Estabrook: There are two factors at work here. The first is that the tomatoes are picked when they're immature and no matter what you do, an immature tomato will never get any taste; though it might look alluring.

The second problem with industrial tomatoes is that for the last fifty years, they've been bred for one thing only, and that's yield. One farmer told me, "I get paid per pound. I don't get paid a cent for taste." Sadly, he was right.

Eatocracy: Why are consumers willing to put up with this?

Estabrook: I came across study after study that showed that tomatoes rank at or near the bottom of consumers' satisfaction lists. All I can guess is that grocery store tomatoes are food porn - in the literal sense. It looks pretty, it triggers memories, but it certainly doesn't deliver.

Eatocracy: What are the challenges to growing tomatoes in a climate like Florida?

Estabrook: I quickly learned that from a botanical and horticultural point of view, you would have to be a fool to try to grow tomatoes commercially in a place like Florida.

The main problem is that tomatoes' ancestors come from desert areas. They're adapted to extremely dry, low-humidity areas. That's why Southern Italy and parts of California are so good for tomatoes; it doesn't rain all summer. Florida is notoriously humid, which is just perfect conditions for all of the funguses, rusts, blights, insects and pests that destroy tomatoes.

That's why they have to use 110 different chemicals, fertilizers, fungicides and herbicides to even get a crop. Florida and California grow about the same amount of tomatoes. Florida uses eight times to get the same agricultural product.

The second problem with Florida is - I'm not even going to call it soil, because it isn't. Florida tomatoes are grown in sand. Just like the sand on Daytona Beach, it's great to wiggle your toes in, but it contains zero nutrients. None.

So they have to essentially pump in all the chemical food that the plant is going to need for its lifetime. Then they seal the row in plastic and hope they'll get a crop.

Eatocracy: Then what's the rationale behind growing tomatoes in Florida?

Estabrook: It has nothing to do with horticulture and everything to do with marketing. Florida is a day and a half or two days semi-trailer load from Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia - from two thirds of the country. And in the wintertime, they can get a crop.

That's the reason they're grown there. It’s the antithesis of local and seasonal.

Eatocracy: How do these tomatoes physically get from the field to the plate?

Estabrook: They've not invented a machine that can pick a tomato that's going to be sliced and eaten fresh. Canning tomatoes can be picked by machine; they may as well be apples and oranges. People have to do pick these by hand, and they're paid on a piece basis, by bucket of tomatoes.

You see these people out in the field, with bushel-basket sized buckets between their legs. It looks like one of those cartoon dogs digging, except that instead of dirt coming up, it's tomatoes. Their hands are pulling and pulling and pulling until they fill a bucket, which they run over to a nearby truck and empty it.

Eatocracy: Who are the workers?

Estabrook: They are primarily people from Southern Mexico, Northern Central America, Guatemala. United Farm Workers estimate that 70 percent of all farm workers in this country, not just tomato pickers, are undocumented immigrants.

Eatocracy: What are their working conditions like?

Estabrook: Slavery is what is happening. There is no way to gloss it. You can't say "slavery-like." You can't say "near-slavery." "Human trafficking" doesn't even do it credit. Here are some things that are in court records; it's all been proven.

People are being bought and sold like chattels. People are locked and shackled in chains at night in order to prevent them from escaping. People are being beaten severely if they're too tired to work, too sick to work or don't want to work hard enough. People are beaten even more severely or murdered if they try to escape. They receive little or no pay for their efforts.

That, to me, is slavery. It's like 1850, not 2011.

Eatocracy: How does a worker end up in this situation?

Estabrook: First of all, there have been 1,200 slaves freed in seven separate prosecutions in Florida in the last 15 years. The way that they get into slavery is often a slippery slope.

I talked to one guy who'd just crossed the border and hit the town of Immokalee, Florida. He was homeless and staying at a mission. He was standing outside and a guy pulled up in a pickup truck and said, "Hey, want work? I'll pay you?" and he named a price that was twice the going rate."

The man told him, "My mother cooks for the crew, and we'll just deduct that from your check, and you can even stay on my property; I've got some buildings. We'll just take that from your check."

This all sounded good, but you know what happens. Even though he picked enough tomatoes to supposedly get out of debt to his boss, he was never told that.

Everything cost money. It even cost him $5 to hose himself off with a backyard hose every day. There was plenty of liquor supplied at a very high price. He was kept enslaved for two and a half years before he broke out.

Eatocracy: How did he say he broke free?

Estabrook: This is telltale of the conditions they live under. He and three or four other slaves had been locked for the night in the back of the produce truck that was going to go out in the fields the next day. There was no toilet or running water.

As dawn broke, they noticed that there was a little gap between the rivets. He got on the shoulders of another man and they punched and kicked their way through the roof. He slid down the side of the truck and got a ladder so they rest of them could crawl out and run to safety.

Eatocracy: Have there been any health concerns for the workers?

Estabrook: Florida tomatoes can be sprayed with more than 100 different fungicides, pesticides and herbicides. Some of them are what the Environmental Protection Agency calls "acutely toxic" - which is a nice way of saying they can kill you. The containers come with skulls and crossbones.

I talked to three or four dozen tomato workers during the course of my research and I'd ask them if they'd ever been sprayed. It was like asking them if they put their pants on one leg at a time. They'd say, "Of course! It happens every day." It's illegal, but it happens. Florida tomatoes have to be sprayed regularly or they'll die because of all the insects and diseases there.

Most workers now are first generation Hispanic, so they know there have been short term effects.

Eatocracy: Have there been more long-term cases studied?

Estabrook: Years ago, the workers were African American, and they didn't migrate - they stayed put.

There's an area in Central Florida, not far from Disneyworld, called Lake Apopka. In the 40s, someone got the idea of draining half the lake and planting crops in the muck. Then they decided to take it one step further and in the off season, re-flood the cropland. They thought it would help the fertility and kill off weeds and they kept doing that for four decades.

All the pesticides that were on the crops went into the water and were pumped back into the lake, then pumped back on the crops. Not only were there people working in those fields; they were living in trailers next to the fields.

Today, even though they haven't farmed in that area since 1998 because it became so bad, they closed the lake down, twelve years later these people are finding themselves with all sorts of immune diseases and endocrine disruptor related diseases. These have all been traced to pesticide exposure in animals. They have a rate of birth defects four times the Florida average.

In its wisdom, the Florida government provided millions of dollars to study water birds, and found out yes indeed, they'd been poisoned by these pesticides and it spent a million and a half to study the alligators of this area and found out they, too had reproductive harm - the male alligators' genitals were much smaller than normal.

It wasn't until this year that they set aside $500,000 to give to a little clinic that these 2500 workers could go to - and Governor Scott just vetoed it a few weeks ago.

The wealthy farmers received over $100,000,000 for the land. The workers got zip. These are American-born African Americans who have lived on this land for generations.

Eatocracy: Who are the farmers and who is overseeing this industry?

Estabrook: The system, is improving very slowly. It's a few enormous farming corporations - about a dozen companies grow 90 percent of Florida's commercial tomatoes. They farm thousands of acres.

The problem is that they build a firewall between themselves and the actual work in the fields by contracting out to these crew bosses. It gives them the opportunity to say, "Oh, shocked. Shocked! What's going on in my fields? I had no idea." They've farmed out the responsibility of managing their fields. Some of them are scrupulous. Some of them are not.

Eatocracy: These fields are not hidden; they are public and visible. How is this happening in plain sight?

Estabrook: This is happening in plain sight within a short drive from some of the wealthiest communities in the United States. There are traffic jams of yachts in Naples, Florida's harbor. There's a whistling of corporate jets flying in and out all the time.

You drive 40 minutes inland and you've entered a different world. It's like people don't see them.

In some cases it's because the workers don't want to be seen. They lack documentation, they're desperate. They want to work and send a bit of money home; that's all they want to do. They want to be invisible and stay near their community, or if they're in a camp out in the fields, they'll stay close to that.

They certainly won't go to the police, often because of their immigration status, or because in their home countries, the police are just thugs in uniform. They don't report these crimes.

Eatocracy: Has there been any successful prosecution on behalf of the workers?

Estabrook: There have been seven successful prosecutions in Southern Florida. In addition to that, pro-bono lawyers who work for the farm laborers have settled lawsuits with farmers for ten of millions of dollars in total. There were farmers who didn't pay the proper amount; even if they didn't have slaves, they didn't pay minimum wage.

Some good things have happened, but as an attorney down there told me, it's just the tip of an iceberg. It's very difficult to prosecute these cases; you need a witness. If you're enslaved and you get free - what I'd do is run as fast as I can to the border and get out of there.

Eatocracy: How much say are the workers given?

Estabrook: Some farmers sadly do view their workers as less than human. In fact, there's a grassroots organization called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, and they approached a farmer a few years ago and asked if they could speak with him about conditions on his farm.

He looked at them and said, "My tractor does not tell me how to farm. So why should you?"

That was very, very telltale, and subsequently the workers had a demonstration and they all wore headbands that said "Yo no soy tractor" - which means "I am not a tractor."

Eatocracy: Has there been any more action on the part of the workers?

Estabrook: The small grassroots group based in Immokalee has been since 1993. Then, they'd get a small bunch of people together and go to a crew boss and say, "You know, you haven't paid this man this week. Could you do that now?" It was a one at a time type of thing.

Now they've grown and eventually one of the workers said, "Why don't we go after the end users? Why don't we go after the big corporations that buy the tomatoes from the farmers?"

They started a campaign against Taco Bell, asking them to pay a penny more per pound for the tomatoes. It's nothing to you or me, but that's the difference between $40-50 a day and $80 a day for a tomato picker. It's the difference between not being able to feed your family and a crummy, but okay salary. They asked for a penny a pound and a basic fair labor agreement.

After four years of boycotts and demonstrations and marches, Taco Bell agreed. And then they moved on to McDonald's. After a few years, it came onboard, and then Burger King and Subway and then all the big food service companies signed on and said, "We will do this."

Eatocracy: Has the tomato industry been responsive to these chances?

Estabrook: Finally, last year, the group that represents the tomato growers came to the Immokalee Workers and said they were aboard. So there's been a huge change.

There's a lot of work to do right now to implement these rules in the tomato fields, and they'll be introducing them over the next season or so to try to improve transparency so you can't have slaves. There will be improved grievance reporting so women aren't harassed; that's another big problem in the fields. Sexual harassment is rampant.

There will be shocking things like punch clocks in the fields, so you'll actually get real time, and even more shocking - tarpaulins put up so you can have a bit of shade when you have lunch.

Eatocracy: This sounds like a positive change. What's holding it back from happening industry-wide?

Estabrook: This is good. It's a sea change. But, the big problem is that although all these fast food joints and all of these food service companies that provide food to schools and hospitals and museums have signed on - with the exception of Whole Foods, not a single supermarket chain has signed this agreement. Not one.

It's as if the pipeline is built for this money and these rights to go to the workers, but the supermarkets are refusing to take part. So there are still people who are working under these awful conditions.

Eatocracy: Do you find from talking to so many people that if the general public knew about this, they'd be willing to pay more?

Estabrook: I think so. The last time I checked, a winter tomato in the supermarket near my house - a basic Florida round commodity tomato - cost $1.99 a pound. So what's $2 if it's going to end abuse in the fields and give a guy a decent living?

I think it's doable, because if you notice, at the supermarket, there's now a whole display of premium-priced tomatoes. It's $2-3 a pound for grape tomatoes or a tomato on the vine, so there are people willing to pay, and I think they'd be happy to spend a penny if they knew what it would do.

Eatocracy: Are all supermarket tomatoes grown under these reported conditions, or is it just the Florida rounds?

Estabrook: Grape tomatoes from Florida are grown under these conditions as well as the slicing rounds. Like I said, the only supermarket chain that has signed the agreement is Whole Foods. The rest - you have no guarantee that the tomato was picked by a person making a fair wage.

Eatocracy: What is the best course of action for a consumer who wants to make a change?

Estabrook: It's hard. The best course of action is, of course, to grow your own or go to the farmers market. Or if you're in your market, and you see tomatoes from your region in season, those are the best solutions.

Then the rest depends on you. You can talk to the produce manager and say, "I don't like this situation, and I don't want to buy tomatoes picked under these conditions."

No one in this country is going to suffer malnutrition as a result of not getting one of those pale, tasteless, hard winter tomatoes. Instead of buying three of those, buy one real tomato in season. You'll get more nutrients and a lot better tasting product.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has a website with activities and petition writing if you're so inclined. I'd like to think that someday, we'll be able to walk into a supermarket and get a tomato and know that the person who picked it is at least able to support his family.

For a response from the industry, read Why tomatoes grow in Florida

Previously - An ode to the tomato and mayo sandwich and Caprese: The only salad that matters right now

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