You walk into the grocery store mid winter, spy those perfectly smooth and red tasteless tomatoes and instantly engage in a visceral emotional battle to buy a package. You pick up the loveliest of those tasteless tomatoes and place it below your nose, inhaling deeply – is that the scent of tomato or is that the memory of last summer’s fruit you detect? No matter, you so crave the tomato’s potential for culinary complexities that in your mind you’ve already sliced that tasteless tomato and applied it to a sandwich or chunked it atop an out-of-season salad. And then you bite into it – Blech!
In investigative food journalist Barry Estabrook’s upcoming and quite possibly greatest work, Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit you will discover just how and why commodity tomatoes came to be nothing more than hard, fibrous, potentially poisonous and completely unappealing stand-ins for the real deal. You also will discover that the human and environmental costs associated with the $10 billion fresh tomato industry simply cannot justify consuming the so-called fruit, not to mention that when you do, you get a good dose of at least 35 pesticides, some of which are among the most dangerous. And besides, who wants to support any industry that uses modern-day indentured labor, preferring to employ non-English-speaking illegal aliens because they’re easier to enslave?
Estabrook’s narrative begins with an animated analysis of uniformly hard, and perfectly shaped, green orbs flying off trucks at 60 mph (all safely hitting the pavement and rolling to a stop none the worse for wear) and reveals the inner (and often very dark) workings of Florida’s winter tomato farming industry. Along the way you will meet true villains who would keep workers in the field, picking while spray rigs douse them with a cocktail so toxic their babies are born without limbs – and worse. You will meet modern-day slavers, growers in denial, mothers beaten for taking time off for pre-natal care, lawyers and public officials doing their best to elicit change, scientists and breeders just doing what they do. Tomatoland illuminates the seedy labor contractor lurking in the shadows and calls the uber-powerful Florida Tomato Committee on everything from keeping good-tasting tomatoes off grocery store shelves to threatening growers with six-figure fines for paying pickers a fair wage.
Barry Estabrook is a masterful story teller with an uncanny ability to render intricate intellectual pathways entirely accessible. Tomatoland deftly leads us through a complex maze of interrelated occurrences, legal decisions and cultural practices (human and tomato) in a narrative that reads a little like a thriller. I finished the book in two sittings and found myself identifying with farmers, migrant workers, lawyers and even some large growers.
Perhaps the most important lesson from Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland is that no matter how hard the PR voices and online advocates try to make industrial agriculture all about “feeding a hungry world,” the fact of the matter is that corporate wealth is No. 1. When large corporate (so-called family) farms are willing and able to exploit, poison and otherwise despoil people and environment alike, all while delivering a product that appeals only to their large corporate customers, not the end consumer, the motive is all about money.
Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit is a must read for everyone who eats. I don’t care if you are in the commodity cattle business or feed your own family with a small garden. I don’t care if you are a policy maker, extension professional, molecular biologist, industrial mogul, minister, teacher, or what have you. Tomatoland illustrates how fundamentally bankrupt our current commodity-based, industrial food systems have become and offers a glimmer of hope for a food future that’s healthful for all involved. Read it and try not to weep.
Estabrook’s Tomatoland will be available June 7. Pre-order your copy today.
Hank Will raises hair sheep, heritage cattle and many varieties of open-pollinated corn with his wife, Karen, on their rural Osage County, Kansas farm. His home life is a perfect complement to his professional life as editor in chief at GRIT and Capper's Farmer magazines. Connect with him on Google+.