Ecocentric

How Tomatoes Represent What’s Wrong With Industrial Agriculture

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If you ate a tomato this winter in the U.S. eat a tomato today in the U.S., chances are almost certain that it was grown down in Florida. (Ed: Corrected because I forgot it was July, despite the 99 F heat.) The Sunshine State may be better known for oranges, but it’s also the source for about one-third of the fresh tomatoes produced in the U.S., and nearly all of the off-season tomatoes eaten during the fall and the winter. Florida is the reason you can enjoy tomato slices on your hamburger in January.

But as Barry Estabrook writes in his fantastic new book Tomatoland: How Modern Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, that availability comes with a cost: for the environment, for consumers and for the workers in the fields. “The tomato is the poster child for so much that is wrong with industrial agriculture,” Estabrook says. “If you take everything people care about when it comes to local food and seasonality and fair trade and you strip all that away, you end up with a tomato grown in Florida.”

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Take labor first. Estabrook—a freelance food writer for publications like The Atlantic and The New York Times—first became interested in the tomato because of a horrific labor abuse case that broke several years ago in the Florida farming town of Immokalee. Law enforcement officials found that some Florida tomato growers were keeping illegal immigrants in a state of indentured servitude, pay workers little and keeping them in confinement as they picked the tomatoes for the rest of us. Any laborer who attempted to escape was threatened with severe beating. As one U.S. attorney in Florida would put it, the system was “slavery, plain and simple.” “People were chained up at night and bought and sold like cattle,” says Estabrook. “It was like something out of the 1850s, but it was happening now.”

Estabrook would go onto write a prize-winning story about tomato slavery in Florida—in the now-defunct Gourmet magazine, of all places—and in recent years conditions have improved for the state’s tomato pickers. But labor isn’t the only thing wrong with the modern tomato. As Estabrook shows in his book, Florida is a terrible place to actually grow tomatoes. The soil is sandy and lacks nutrients, so it needs to be pumped full of chemical fertilizers and irrigated. The perpetually warm weather prevents frosts that would otherwise kill the plants, but it also supports pests and plant disease, which in turn means more pesticides. Really all that Florida has going for it is the heat and the sunshine—and the fact that it’s close to densely populated East Coast cities, so tomatoes can be quickly shipped to consumers.

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That means transportation and trade are the top concerns for tomato growers—not taste. Farmers want a tomato that is virtually indestructible, one that can survive the bumpy truck trip from a Florida farm to a New York City supermarket without bruising. (Literally—Estabrook writes about watching a tomato fall off the back of a truck on the highway and bounce away unscathed.) The result is less a fruit as we would expect it than a hard red baseball-like sphere that can be added to your salad. “The standards that the Florida Tomato Committee are just about shape and size and durability,” says Estabrook. “Taste is simply not a criteria.”

To Estabrook, the way we raise our tomatoes—and the way we eat them—shows our real food priorities. Constant availability—regardless of seasonality—matters more than taste or nutrition or the environment or labor rights. That’s life in Tomatoland. His book is well worth checking out.

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Bryan Walsh is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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