I have a confession to make: I hate tomatoes.
Mind you, I eat them all the time, but in some sort of processed form. Most often, they take the form of pasta sauce, but often arrive on my plate as ketchup. But fresh tomatoes? If I've forgotten to tell the waiter to leave them off my plate, I offer them to my dinner companion or push them as far away as they will go from the rest of my dinner, lest it become contaminated.
So when I ran across Barry Estabrook's "Tomatoland: How Modern Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit," I thought, Aha! Maybe the problem isn't me - maybe it's the tomato.
Estabrook seems to agree, and takes the reader through the various stages of modern agriculture that result in the perfectly round, red, yet hopelessly bland tomatoes that find their way into the average supermarket. They are frequently grown in Florida, where they are bred to certain standards of color, size, shape, and smoothness of skin. Taste is not a consideration.
While growing, tomato plants must cope with an environment that "would be one of the last places in the world where tomatoes grow." They evolved in coastal deserts and later thrived in the dry Mediterranean heat. Florida, however, is humid, and its sandy soil lacks needed nutrients. The end result is that the fields must be pumped full of artificial fertilizers and the plants must be doused liberally with herbicides and pesticides - many of them known carcinogens.
Not surprisingly, all this comes at a high cost in dollar terms, so the growers cut the only cost they can - what they pay the people who pick the fruits and tend the plants. The resulting human cost is tremendous: Workers who are sprayed with toxic chemicals, live in slumlike conditions, are denied basic legal rights, and in the worst case, find themselves trapped as modern-day slaves.
The resulting fruits must be hardy enough to withstand being transported to the supermarket, so they are picked while still green and unripe and gassed to a cheerful red.
The research that went into Tomatoland is thorough and the stories are disturbing at best and harrowing at worst. The territory is very similar to that covered by Fast Food Nation and, by now, countless other books and magazine articles.
Tomatoland really takes off, though, in the second half - in which Estabrook examines some of the success stories in correcting the industry's ills. In one example, a farmer in the northeast began raising heirloom tomatoes that are now sold to some four-star restaurants, as well as directly to consumers at the greenmarket - who don't seem to care as much about the tomatoes' looks as they do about their taste. Another chapter examines a model farmworker community that was built in Florida after Hurricane Andrew destroyed the shoddy trailer park communities in which migrant workers are typically housed at exorbitant rates.
It's disheartening to think about the poor quality of what we are eating and how much suffering results from it - both to those who produce the fruit and those who eat it. I enjoyed Tomatoland for not only describing the ills, but also for illustrating the solution so carefully and poignantly, and so clearly demonstrating that both economics and basic decency both argue in favor of producing a more palatable - if uglier - tomato.