Often, when buying a fruit or vegetable and thinking about the farm that it has come from, I picture nice rows of lush plants and ask myself “what is the worst thing that could’ve gone into produce this vegetable?” I think of a few things: pesticides or chemical fertilizers, but this book showed me how complicated and multifaceted the process of producing that vegetable really is.
In Tomatoland, Barry Estabrook explores and documents everything that goes into producing a tomato, meeting people who are involved at every step in the process. The way that most tomatoes are grown is very different than what we might imagine or how we grow them in our gardens. This process likewise yields a very different tomato than a hom-grown one. Many tomatoes are picked when green and sprayed with ethylene gas to ripen them. The plant naturally produces ethylene to regulate the fruit’s ripening, but picking the tomatoes while they are harder and less ripe means less damage and bruising during transportation. The flavor of a gassed tomato, however, will never match that of a tomato allowed to ripen on the vine. Workers are supposed to only pick “mature green” tomatoes which are about to turn red and are almost ripe, but it is hard to distinguish between a “mature green” and a less mature tomato which has even less flavor. Modern industrial agriculture is concerned only with the yield of a tomato plant, the tomato’s size and shape. The modern tomato has lost all its flavor in the name of uniformity and quantity.
Most tomatoes are grown in Florida, one of the only places in the country warm enough to support the crop in the winter. The problem is that Florida’s hot and humid weather supports many pests and pathogens, around 30 insect species and 30 more diseases that can affect a tomato’s growth. This means that many potent and toxic pesticides must be used to keep the plants healthy. Many of these pesticides are deadly even with brief exposure and cause health problems for workers. Another problem with growing tomatoes in Florida is that there is only sand to grow them in, which has very little nutrients for the plants. In order to support the plant, growers must add high amounts of chemical fertilizer, which pollutes groundwater and nearby lakes. All of this environmental harm comes from forcing the tomato to grow in unideal, unnatural conditions. We have to learn to farm in harmony with the seasons rather than trying to fight them. If we don’t wait until summer to enjoy a tomato, we are supporting this pollutive and unsustainable process.
Estabrook details the issues with policy and law, workers’ rights, immigration, and all the different corporations that are involved in modern tomato farming. Throughout the book, Estabrook looks at the people who are working to change modern tomato farming, whether it’s a lawyer who represents mistreated workers, a farmer who grows tomatoes organically on a large scale, or a scientist working to create a new tomato variety with more taste. Much of the book is centered on the small town of Immokalee in southern Florida. However, every part of this close-up look––the battles between small NGOs and big corporations, the trade-off between quality and quantity or economic efficiency and sustainability––can be extrapolated to consider modern industrial agriculture as a whole.
Needless to say, my old view of the simple green rows of vegetables doesn’t hold up after considering everything else that goes into the process. After reading this book, a tomato doesn’t seem so innocent. It has an elaborate background and a long history. The farming that went into it has complicated economic, social, and environmental consequences. As food writer Ruth Reichl said, “If you have ever eaten a tomato––or ever plan to––you must read Tomatoland. It will change the way you think about America’s most popular ‘vegetable.’ More importantly, it will give you new insight into the way America farms.”