You Say Tomato, I Say Social Injustice

Summer is wonderful for a lot of reasons; stone fruit, lazy afternoons, swimming (which, because I live in SF I sorely miss out on). Summer is also tomato season.

I love seeing the stacks of heirlooms in all different shapes and sizes, from purple to green to rosy red. I even planted tomatoes this year and despite my utter neglect of them-it appears my green thumb needs some work-they are still growing.

Tomatoes scream summer to me, and yet these days you can find them year round in the grocery store. I used to buy them throughout the year and remark to Alex how they bland they were and how mealy. When I started shopping local/organic, my wintertime tomato purchases dropped.

Barry's book and a simple pasta dish with local heirlooms

I talked earlier this year about Barry Estabrook’s book, Tomatoland. I hadn’t yet read it, but I was pretty horrified by the excerpts.

It only gets worse. Tomato production wreaks havoc on the flavor, the environment, and, most importantly to me, is extremely dangerous for those that pick them. The book takes us through the history and science of tomato production, and is instantly readable and relatable. Barry makes even the most complicated scientific information accessible, and evocatively writes about the people affected.

The book focuses almost exclusively on Florida tomatoes, as that’s where the majority of winter tomatoes originate, and where the worst human rights abuses have been found. I’ll have to so some research for California to find out what’s going on here. I know off the top of my head that our protections for farmworkers are much more stringent than in Florida, but I’m sure there are improvements to be made.

The most toxic chemicals, banned in other countries, and almost completely banned in the US, are uses for Florida tomato production (and strawberries, so buy organic). One such chemical is methyl iodide. This pesticide is considered a Pesticide Action Network “Bad Actor”  – the worst of the worst pesticides. Methyl iodide is a known carcinogen and has been linked to late term miscarriages. Need more proof? Read real stories from people affected by methyl iodide. The first woman went into complete organ failure 72 hours after her neighborhood was sprayed by a crop duster. Many more people talk about vomiting, terrible skin blisters, dizziness, miscarriages, and other awful reactions. The document is actually stories from people from California, where this pesticide has recently been approved for use on strawberries.

And what are we getting for it? It’s not like the tomatoes are delicious. I was lucky enough to attend a dinner with Barry and someone asked how he got involved in the issue. He admitted that coming from a food writer background, it was because of flavor, or lack there of, that he started researching. Then he found out about the rest of it, and threw himself into it full force.

This just highlights that the tomato issue spans from foodies to environmentalists to social justice advocates. In order to stop the worst of it, all these groups have to work together. The problem is that many of us don’t know, and despite the fact that we know a winter tomato will taste awful, there is something nostalgic about buying a round red tomato and bringing a bit of summer into the winter months.

And consumers want just that; the growers interviewed for the book said they don’t focus at all on taste because what consumers care most about is appearance. The tomatoes can taste like crap as long as they are red. So they pick them green, blast them with ethylene gas so they turn red – although they don’t actually ripen – and ship them off to grocery stores. Each season, the growers association actually dictates the uniform size and shape that all tomatoes must have in order to ship. Tomatoes with even a hint of red are thrown out of the packing house.

Where do we go from here? The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is working hard on their Campaign for Fair Food. The Pesticide Action Network is actively working on these issues. We can all vote with our dollars and only buy local, organic tomatoes from small farmers. And if those aren’t available? Don’t buy tomatoes. Or grow your own. Mine are currently housed in old trash cans and like I said, I’m not treating them well and they’re still producing, so at least from my perspective they aren’t hard to manage.

I never thought tomatoes would mean this much to me. But I’m happy to see I’m not the only one thinking about this issue. As they say, knowledge is power. I’ll be happy to lend my copy of the book to anyone that wants to read it and get informed!



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