J’habite dans la Terre du Pommes D’amour

Pommes d’amour – I have always liked that name for tomatoes in French. Long ago, tomatoes were thought to be an aphrodisiac, so in the 16th century the French took the rather dull Italian name, Pomo di Mori, and replaced it with something infinitely more poetic, and inspiring.

Alas, those legendary tomatoes are long gone, due in large part to modern industrial agriculture. These days, you can buy red orbs to put in your salad, but today’s typical supermarket fare are a far cry from what tomatoes used to be. C’est un vrai dommage.

I thought I was the only one who thought that tomatoes had changed. Gone was the deep red color- and totally gone was the fragrant aroma and tangy sweetness that my memory associates with tomatoes. Tomatoes have been bland for such a long time, that I had begun to question my memory as just an exaggeration over time. You know, like how you remember certain things from your childhood a certain way, big things, for example, and later on when you revist them, your adult perspective makes them seem smaller, or shabbier? I thought that my memory of tomatoes was like that.

I was not at all relieved when I found out that I wasn’t the only one that thought this way. Not one iota, because it turns out that for the past 20 years, modern, commercially available tomatoes have had the all flavor, color, and nutrition bred right out of them.

Florida accounts for 1/3 of the United States’ supply of out-of-season tomatoes, thanks to our warmer climate. However, ironically, the warm, humid climate, combined with the worst soil in the world (sand, basically) makes for a terrible place to grow tomatoes. Just to get tomatoes to grow requires a lethal cocktail of 100 different chemical pesticides and fungicides. This is to kill the 27  pests that thrive in Florida’s warm, humid climate, and which inevitably attack and decimate whole fields of tomato plants. If the plants actually bear fruit, the tomatoes are then cut short of maturing and are picked green, so that they are still hard and can withstand the rigors of handling & shipping. They are unable to ripen on their own, so they are gassed with ethylene, which turns them red.

Tomatoland by Larry Estabrook

Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook

Tomatoland is a book that partly explores this travesty, and goes deeper to expose the common practices of companies in the Florida out-of-season tomato industry: the overuse of pesticides & fertilizers, the widespread use of illegal migrant workers and their mistreatment, the lobbying power of the Florida Tomato Board, and what is being done to offer the consumer better alternatives. The author, Barry Estabrook, does an amazing job of bringing these issues to the fore, and balancing the negatives with stories of people who are devoting their lives to making positive changes in the industry, the cultivation of tomatoes, and raising awareness of the problems related to human trafficking.

After reading Tomatoland, what I thought was just a problem of flavorless-ness in tomatoes ended up being worse. What I learned through Estabrook’s careful research actually left a very bad taste in my mouth. The working conditions of the laborers are what horrified me the most. Popular brands of tomatoes that I have bought at the supermarket, thinking I was being a savvy shopper because they were marked “grown in the USA” and not Mexico, turned out to be some of the worst offenders. Slavery, birth defects, and deaths are direct results of the lack of oversight, outright greed, and negligence of these companies.

The stories that Estabrook tells about the working conditions, as well as the accounts of human bondage, violence and exploitation, are horrendous. The mere thought that these things are still happening today (as you read this!) and here in Florida, just a few counties away from my home, let ALONE in the United States, is extremely disturbing. To know that by purchasing certain brands of tomatoes made me an unwitting accomplice to these working conditions, really shook me to the core. By the simple choices of what I put on the table for my family to eat, I was enabling a whole system of human slavery.

Needless to say, I have become very picky about my tomatoes.  Taste, nutrition- those qualities seem rather superficial now. Give me a tomato that is humane, ecologically sustainable, then we’ll work on the rest. Thankfully, Estabrook devotes several chapters to the positive inroads that are being made on all fronts: attorneys and workers’ coalitions who are fighting for the basic needs of the migrant workers, organic farmers and horticulturalists who work long hours to produce tomatoes that don’t require the lethal chemical cocktails AND actually taste good.

This book challenged some of my beliefs, and gave me a greater awareness of the business of agriculture in our country. Tomatoland is a snapshot of one segment of the commercial agriculture industry – out-of -season tomatoes. There are many more fruits and vegetables that are produced in FL, and other states, that have stories very similar to the tomato. Tomatoland exposes just “the tip of a very ugly iceberg.”

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Jersey girl by birth, sailor by marriage, wife & mother by grace.

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