I love books and documentaries about the food industry, so I was dying to read Barry Estabrook’s investigation into the tomato industry, Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. Starting with an alarming anecdote of how he witnessed freshly-picked hard, green tomatoes fall off a truck and bounce off the road with nary a bruise, Estabrook immediately had my attention. He mostly focuses his attention on the heart of the tomato industry: Florida.
Mass-producing tomatoes so that they’re available year-round at your local grocery store comes at a high human and environmental price. Not only are those grocery store tomatoes usually mealy and bland–a far cry from home-grown or farmer’s market tomatoes–but so much has to be done to grow them that the ethics behind the industry are thrown into question. Florida may be the Sunshine State, but contrary to popular belief, it’s actually a horrible place for agriculture. The state is mostly sand–the type you’d find at the beach–meaning the land can’t hold nutrients very well; everything just washes away. As a result, dozens of nutrients and pesticides must be pumped into the fields several times during the season just in order to keep the plants alive:
According to figures compiled by the Florida Tomato Exchange, an industry group, a grower typically applies more than $2,000 worth of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to every acre of tomatoes…An acre of Florida tomatoes gets hit with five times as much fungicide and six times as much pesticide as an acre of California tomatoes.
If the numbers on pesticide usage weren’t alarming enough, Estabrook’s investigation into the workforce that picks the tomatoes made my heart drop on occasion. Largely dependent on undocumented workers from Latin American countries, tomato growers are able to exploit their workers in various horrifying ways, including modern-day slavery. At one point Estabrook writes, “any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave.” Needless to say, I won’t be eating winter tomatoes any time soon.
What I found really upsetting was reading about how common it is for workers to be sprayed by some of the most toxic pesticides known. From late December 2004 to February 2005, three babies were born with extreme birth defects; their mothers had not been warned about the dangers and had worked in the fields throughout their entire pregnancy. After these cases were made public, companies hastily began “educating” workers, doing things like making them watch videos in English even though most of their workforce spoke Spanish or indigenous Latin American dialects. Other workers spoke of working in the fields while they were being sprayed; if they complained, they were told to go drink water and get back to work. One man with health problems was even fired for complaining too much. After reading these accounts of abuse, I was horrified (but sadly not surprised) to learn that the life expectancy of a migrant worker in the U.S. is only about forty-nine years old.
Though there are many stories of activism and perseverance, there was one woman in the book whose story left me in awe: Yolanda Cisneros. She was born in Texas and moved to Florida with her family when she was a child so that they could work in the fields. She eventually became a crew boss–the only female boss in her area (and earning the nickname “The Bitch” from the good old boy network of fellow bosses). After witnessing the extent of pesticide use while her workers were in the field, she became extremely outspoken and started fighting on their behalf. Seriously, if I were still back in grad school, I’d probably try to write my thesis on her.
I love fresh tomatoes, but I don’t think I’ve bought any at the grocery store since reading this book. I honestly don’t think I can. Estabrook’s esposé will make you think twice (and then some), but I’m glad I read it. Also? I really need to start growing my own tomatoes.
Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit was published by Andrews McMeel Publishing on June 7, 2011.