Tag Archives: Barry Estabrook

The Importance of Crop Diversity

Modern crop and livestock varieties are often bred for their yield, disease resistance, uniformity, and ability to withstand shipment. Our large-scale food system needs a productive, pest-resistant, shippable crop to feed a huge and widespread population. I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with seeking out these traits and I can understand their importance. However, I think we run into problems when our desire for uniformity and durability forces us to compromise diversity and nutrition.

Let me share a story from the Florida tomato industry to explain myself. As surprising and seemingly random as it is, Florida indeed produces 40-45% of this country’s tomatoes. In 2005, the Procacci Brothers Sales Corporation crossed a French heirloom tomato with a more conventional, disease-resistant Florida tomato. The resulting variety was flavorful and hardy but ugly and wrinkled compared to the industry standard: a smooth, round (and flavorless) tomato. Leader of the company Joe Procacci named his new tomato the UglyRipe and its sales grew steadily once it hit the market. People really liked UglyRipes and were willing to pay a premium for their superior vine-ripened flavor. (The majority of other conventionally grown tomatoes are picked green and ripened with ethylene gas.) Indeed the tomato’s sales began to compete with those of the traditional varieties (Florida rounds, as they are called) grown by the majority of other farmers in the state.

Procacci’s UglyRipe tomato in all of its ugly glory (from Tomato Casual)

Enter the Florida Tomato Committee whose members are made up of Procacci’s competitors, other Florida tomato growers. This committee decides the exact standard of size and shape (down to the millimeter) that any tomato leaving the state must meet. Even though UglyRipes were permitted to sell for a few years as an “experimental crop,” the tomatoes didn’t meet the committee standard and were no longer allowed to be sold. Joe Procacci was forced to throw away 700 acres worth of UglyRipes and lost $3 million. Luckily, with much fighting, Procacci won exemption from the standards. But as you can see, there is something seriously wrong with a food system in which standardization and the norm can beat out a product which is better for the consumers. The idea of growing a few select varieties and excluding others for the mere sake of uniformity is clearly flawed. But the system of regulations that has grown around this idea ––the system in which the Florida Tomato Committee exists–– is even more flawed.

Yes, those are unripe tomatoes and not Granny Smith apples (from the LA Times).

As you can see, US farmers grow only the tiniest fraction of available crop varieties on a large scale. Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) estimates that 97% of the cultivars grown in 1903 are now extinct, largely because of our tendency to seek out and breed those few one-crop-fits-all varieties and forget about the others. As scientist and founder of RAFI Cary Fowler puts it, we can see the thousands of crop varieties as a “genetic resource” for future generations. It is important to preserve these varieties even if they aren’t uniform or don’t seem to be of use at this point. Though one crop variety may seem to work well for a number of solid scientific reasons (like common GE corn variety 34B98 and its outstanding yields), we never know what valuable traits other varieties could offer.

In the future, these varieties may add resiliency to our food system if a new pest appears and a long-existent variety proves to be resistant to it. With this in mind, critics of monoculture argue that growing a single crop over large areas increases vulnerability to factors such as disease and changing climate. The Irish potato famine is an interesting case study to examine when considering this criticism. In the 1840s, most poor Irish farmers were growing only a few potato varieties and were very dependent on them as a source of nutrition and livestock feed. For these reasons, a new disease called late blight was able to decimate their crop and threaten their livelihood. Across the world in Peru, where potato cultivation likely began and 2,800 potato varieties still exist, many late blight resistant cultivars have been found. Though the causes and results of the Irish famine are of course diverse and complex, maybe the famine wouldn’t have been so extreme if farmers were growing several potato varieties and some were resistant to late blight. Also, it would have helped to grow a wider range of crops and therefore have more diverse sources of nutrition.

In a way, our current dependence on corn as livestock feed mirrors the Irish dependence on potatoes pre-famine: corn accounts for 95% of the grains we grow for livestock feed and a few genetically-modified varieties currently dominate our fields. So are our rows of corn plants sitting ducks for any new disease? Not at all. In many important ways, our current agricultural system is completely different from that of 19th century Ireland. Modern agricultural knowledge, techniques, and technology (e.g. pesticides and fertilizers) separate us from an agricultural disaster of that kind. As we now know, any pesticides (even organic ones that were around at the time of the Irish famine) can kill late blight and therefore could’ve helped prevent the disaster.

As a 2009 study of Peruvian farmers shows, the adoption of a disease-resistant potato variety can increase yields, as well as reduce the use of pesticides and therefore their cost to farmers and the environment. Clearly, the use and preservation of diverse crop varieties could build resilience in our food system and help us decrease the use of chemical inputs. However, our current crop varieties and approach to farming make for a food system that is in no way “vulnerable,” despite their lack of diversity.

Monocultures are ubiquitous now as our food system has moved away from subsistence farming toward commodity crops. These large monocultures can be pollutive and in my opinion unsustainable. I think that diversifying crops and varieties could help to do the same job as modern chemical inputs and reduce their use while preserving this important “genetic resource.” As we saw with the UglyRipes though, this change must be preceded by a change in our policy and mindset toward unconventional varieties, especially if we want the change to occur on the large scale farms that make up the majority of our food production. Who knows, maybe the Procaccis have shown that trying out a new variety can even have economic benefits which appeal to the more self-interested corporations out there? Others are hopefully soon to catch on.



Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook

The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan











Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook

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.”