Sunday, July 17, 2011

The "Ugli" Truth about Tomatoland

I have been on a hot streak when it comes to great books this summer; the first was The Poison Tree, the second March, and now I've just finished Tomatoland and I feel like I just have tell someone about it. So here it goes.

Tomatoland is the "Food, Inc." for the Florida tomato industry but that doesn't really do it justice. The idea for the book began when Barry Estabrook, the author, was driving behind a big tomato truck and a large tomato flew out of the back and bounced onto his car window. It then bounced two, three, four times onto the pavement and landed on the side of the road -- totally unharmed. The author began with one burning question -- what made this tomato indestructible? -- and found that one query led to thousands.

The book talks about how, if you buy a red tomato from Florida in the winter (or even if you get them sliced up on a salad or a sandwich from a restaurant), it is actually green and unripe but has been gassed with something called ethylene so that it will appear red. The fact that it tastes like a cardboard box comes from the fact that ethylene doesn't actually ripen the fruit at all but instead acts as a cosmetic mask. In fact, very few tomatoes are allowed to ripen on the vine; instead, they are bulked up with pesticides and various chemicals to keep them worm-, fungus-, and rot-free, which is a necessity since tomatoes don't grow well in the Florida sand. Tomatoes that do ripen on the vine are tossed out or left in the field to shrivel up. Heirloom tomatoes -- which are by and large responsible fruit varieties because they've adapted to their environment and so don't need chemicals to thrive -- have fallen out of favor because the Florida Tomato Industry have banned any fruit that isn't perfectly round and flawless (a sure sign your tomato has been tampered with, since natural, organic tomatoes are neither).

Fifty to 60% of these chemicals used to grow most Florida tomatoes stay on the fruit long after they've been hosed down by the packing plant; you then feed these carcinogens to your kids, your friends, your partners. What's worse is that, if you're buying a Florida tomato in November, there's a good chance that it came from Immokalee, Florida -- the modern-day slavery capital of the United States. Immigrants (legal and otherwise) are locked into trailers with 10 to 12 other men, forced to urinate in cups and fed 1 bag of chips per household per day. Holes are drilled into the floor to allow air -- and spiders, roaches, and mosquitoes -- into the sweltering buildings. Come daylight, workers are heavily guarded and forbidden breaks, even when coated with the pesticides they're not supposed to be anywhere near. Many who attempt to escape are beaten, at best, and murdered, at worst. An overseer guards the fields to mete out punishment.

Not long ago, three female workers in Immokalee were sprayed with pesticides while pregnant, and their children were born with horrific deformities. One woman's child never developed a jaw, so his tongue constantly fell backwards into his throat, threatening to choke him. And two children were born without either arms or legs, something the tomato companies said were "total flukes" -- despite the fact that the children's mothers were not related to each other.

Right now, your options for buying responsibly are limited but companies such as Whole Foods have started supporting growers such as UgliRipe, which allow their tomatoes to ripen naturally, without ethylene or pesticides. Small farms in Florida are starting to fight back, trying to get their misshapen but flavorful heirloom fruits back into stores. So far, our best solution is to grow our own or support the small farms that do so responsibly.

For those of you who want to read for yourselves, here's the link. I'd love to hear what you think about the book or any others you've found moving/inspiring/thought provoking.