Working at in the sustainable food service industry means I read a lot of food news, and am exposed to things I otherwise might not think about. Lately, the many issues around industrial tomato production have been sticking with me. I’ve been emailing people I barely know to spread information (Hi Mama Pea!), I’ve been talking about it with friends and family, and I find myself thinking about it more than is maybe healthy. But when faced with the human and environmental injustices going on because we all want tomatoes, and we want them cheap, I can’t help but get a little frantic.
Barry Estabrook recently release a book called Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. which I haven’t yet had the opportunity to read. But I’ve seen a lot of excerpts and they’re chilling.
Here’s a quote from a Tomatoland excerpt that was published in The Atlantic on farmworker slavery:
“Taking a day off was not an option. If Domingo or any of the others in the crew became ill or too exhausted to go to the fields, they were kicked in the heads, beaten with fists, slashed with knives or broken bottles, and shoved into trucks to be hauled to the worksites. Some were manacled in chains. One day a crew member couldn’t take it anymore and ran away from a field. One of the Navarretes got in his truck to chase him down. When the truck returned, Medel said that the man’s face was so bloody and swollen that he was unrecognizable. He could not walk. “This is what happens when you try to get away,” the boss said.”
This story comes from Immokalee, Florida, where almost all winter tomatoes are grown. For many, particularly those who tout America’s superiority to other nations, it can be shocking to realize that this sort of slavery still exists, and in fact is thriving, in the US. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been very successful in getting some of the biggest tomato purchasers to only buy tomatoes from farms that can assure a fair wage and suitable living conditions. The fast food industry has stepped up: Taco Bell, McDonalds, Burger King have all signed agreements. The food service industry has too: Compass Group, Sodexo, Aramark and Bon Appetit Management Company have all signed agreements. As of now, Whole Foods is the only grocer to participate in the agreement.
Late last year, the Florida Growers Tomato Exchange signed an agreement with CIW, which will extend fair wage and labor standards protections to 90% of the Florida tomato industry. This is a huge step forward and one that will hopefully propel the system to true reform.
A quote pulled from an excerpt published in Grist on the tomatoes themselves:
“As I drew closer, I saw that the tractor trailer was heavy with what seemed to be green apples. When I pulled out to pass, three of them sailed off the truck, narrowly missing my windshield. Every time it hit the slightest bump, more of those orbs would tumble off. At the first stoplight, I got a closer look. The shoulder of the road was littered with green tomatoes so plasticine and so identical they could have been stamped out by a machine. Most looked smooth and unblemished. A few had cracks in their skins. Not one was smashed. A 10-foot drop followed by a 60-mile-per-hour impact with pavement is no big deal to a modern, agribusiness tomato.”
Doesn’t really sound like a tomato that I’d want to eat. We’ve all experienced these tomatoes, so tasteless that you have to wonder, “what’s the point?” After they’re trucked around, barely ripe, they’re gassed with ethylene to become tolerably edible. Personally, I find this considerably less offensive than the human rights issues at stake. But as those issues are resolved thanks to the hard work of so many advocates and activists, we can move on to these other issues.
So of course, the obvious question is what do we do about it? I don’t buy industrial tomatoes anymore, which means I avoid eating terrible produce and supporting a system of abuse. But that doesn’t mean I don’t consume these tomatoes in some forms – when I go get a veggie burger, I don’t usually ask where they get their tomatoes. Who knows where the tomatoes in ketchup or jarred pasta sauce come from.
So now, for me at least, it’s time to take the next step. I’m going to try my hand at making my own ketchup. I’ll start asking where restaurant tomatoes are from or just leaving them off my plate altogether if I’m feeling shy.
Obviously these steps are not feasible for everyone, and I have absolutely no judgment about where you buy your tomatoes or in what forms you consume them. But, as always, I DO think it’s important to be aware of the source of your food.