The Rotten Truth About Tomatoes: An Interview With Barry Estabrook

Jun 16, 2011
Exec. Prod. of Franchises & Series. He previously reported for HuffPost, L.A. Daily Journal, and Biloxi Sun-Herald.

Tomatoes are one of the most recognizable and ubiquitous fruits on the American table. They're a staple of cooking from Italy to Spain to Mexico and South America. But the story of how today's tomatoes end up on your grocery shelves is anything but wholesome. In his eye-opening new book, award-winning food journalist Barry Estabrook reveals the shocking truth about the modern tomato industry. In a gripping story of modern-day slavery, dangerous pesticides, and old-fashioned greed, Estabrook shows that the bland taste of most supermarket tomatoes is the least of their problems. Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit is in bookstores now.

TakePart spoke with Barry Estabrook about his investigation, his book, and what consumers can do to make a difference.

TakePart: What are the origins of the tomato? Where did this fruit that we all seem to recognize come from?

Barry Estabrook: Well, there are about 17 varieties of wild cousins of tomatoes, and they live along the westernmost coastal areas of South America, starting in Southern Ecuador and running down through Peru to Northern Chile. They basically were desert plants that grew in areas with little or no rainfall. The immediate ancestor, the plant that they domesticated, grows wild in Northern Peru and Southern Ecuador. Still does. 

TP: Do we know how it arrived here in the U.S.?

BE: We know there’s a big missing link that no one has figured out because these wild tomatoes which did grow—and still grow—in Northern Peru and Southern Ecuador, right along the coast, were domesticated in southern Mexico. They weren’t ever domesticated by the indigenous people in their native area. It was the Mayans, more than a thousand miles away, who domesticated it. And people simply don’t know how that happened. Then the first Conquistadors arriving from Spain in what is now Mexico almost immediately brought tomatoes back, and people in Spain and Italy started to grown them.  

TP: Let’s fast-forward a little bit: Today Florida is sort of the epicenter of America’s tomato industry, but you point out in the book that Florida isn’t really ideally suited for tomato growing. Why is Florida so ill- suited for tomato growing, and how did so much of the industry end up there if that’s the case?

BE: Well, from a botanical and horticultural point of view, you’d have to be an idiot to try to grow commercial tomatoes in Florida. The only reason they started to grow there and still do is that during the cold months it’s within a day-or-so’s truck drive of 2/3 of the country—the East Coast and the Midwest—and you can get out-of-season produce to market. 

Florida is ill-suited to tomato growing for three reasons: The first is that Florida is very humid, and tomatoes’ ancestors grew predominantly in these dry, arid areas in South America, which is why tomatoes do well in Italy and California, with those endless dry summer days. So they’re subject to all manner of funguses and blights and things like that due to the humidity. 

The second thing is that Florida is warm year-round, so pests survive from season to season, unlike in the northern part of the country, where you have a winter that kills everything back. 

The third thing is that Florida’s winter weather is really prone to dramatic weather shifts. We all think of the postcard image, but spend any time on vacation in Florida and you know that those balmy days can be followed by a blast of nasty cold air when a cold front comes in. And that stresses plants, so you know they’re just unhappy campers. 

TP: In order to make Florida more suited to tomato growing, one would have to do things to the soil. How dependent is the Florida tomato industry on pesticide use and chemicals?

BE: I’m going to have to correct you. It’s not soil, it’s sand. 

TP: Okay, explain.

BE: It’s not sandy loam. It’s sand, and where tomatoes are gown there are not enough nutrients in it naturally, [similar to the sand at] Daytona Beach or St. Pete’s Beach. Everything that the tomato needs, all the nutrients, have to be put into that sand, and they use chemical fertilizers for that. 

As far as combatting the insects and diseases, the official Florida growers’ tomato guidebook, which goes out to farmers, lists more than a hundred different chemicals at their disposal, including many that are considered “bad actors” by the Pesticide Action Network. “Bad actors” basically means they can kill you. 

TP: If there is such a heavy dependence on pesticides and chemicals, what kinds of protection are the people working with the tomatoes given from these products?

BE: More often than not, nothing. You see these men and women out in the fields and they may have a bandanna handkerchief over their face, which does no good. But the people who are closest to the plants get nothing. 

TP: I think a lot of our readers would ask if that’s legal.

BE: Well technically speaking they’re not supposed to be in the fields when pesticides are present, and there’s supposed to be what they call in the business a “re-entry interval,” which is a nice term that means you know the time that must elapse between the spraying and when people can come back into the fields. So it’s perfectly legal. What’s illegal is putting these people back in the fields when the pesticides are present or while they’re being sprayed. 

TP: Would it be inaccurate or too dramatic to describe the working conditions in the Florida tomato industry as “slave-like?”

BE: At the very worst of the worst, “slave-like” is inaccurate because it should be “slavery,” pure and simple, not “slave-like.” There are proven cases that have come up in courtrooms of people being shackled in chains, locked in tiny little shacks at night, kept behind chain-link fences with razor wire on top, beaten badly if they don’t work hard enough or refuse to work, or are too weak or sick or hungover to work, and beaten badly or in some cases murdered if they tried to leave or escape. That sounds a lot more to me like 1850 than 2011. 

TP: And who are these workers? Do they come from predominantly one part of the world, or one region of the particular country?

BE: There have been waves of them. At first it was black Americans, then there were Haitians, and now it's been predominantly people from southern Mexico and northern Central American—Guatemala, predominantly— and they’re predominantly of indigenous background. 

TP: Tomatoland sprung from a very famous article you wrote for Gourmet Magazine in 2009, which won the James Beard Award. Since that time, what progress has actually been made towards improving the lives of these workers in Florida?

BE: There’s been tremendous progress made, but basically you’re starting from such a low threshold that I think picking tomatoes is still one of the crummiest jobs, if not the crummiest, that America offers. 

But in the fall the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the large tomato growers who are members of the Florida Tomato Exchange basically signed an agreement that would guarantee workers certain very basic rights, like a shady place to have lunch when it’s 100 degrees outside, worker health committees, a grievance procedure—just basic things. Even time clocks in the fields—there’s a new concept for you. Things like that. 

And also, they agreed to pass along a penny-per-pound raise, provided their buyers agreed to pay it. A penny per pound doesn’t sound like much, but it’s the  difference between $50 on a very good day and $80. So it’s a huge raise. 


(Photo: Getty Images).

TP: I want to shift for a minute to the actual product they are picking. I can’t remember the last time I bought a tomato at the grocery store because they all taste awful. How is it that this product that no one seems to be happy with got to be so bad. And how does that actually make money for these companies? 

BE: It got this bad because, as a big farmer told me quite honestly, “Barry, I don’t get paid one cent for flavor. I get paid for weight.” And so the plant breeders and feed companies, knowing who their customers have been for the last 50 years, have bred strictly, almost strictly, for productivity and yield: lots of big tomatoes because the farmers get paid on weight, and they get paid more for big tomatoes than little tomatoes. That’s where breeding has focused. And along the way, the genetics that make up taste, which are quite complicated, simply got lost in commercial tomatoes. 

TP: The story of how tomatoes actually get to the stores is interesting. Can you explain at what point they’re picked and then how they actually get to appear the way they do when we see them on the shelf. 

BE: The store tomatoes are picked at a stage that’s called “mature green.” You and I would call that “unripe green.” They’re picked totally green—the slightest hint of color is too far gone. They are loaded into huge trucks—they look like gravel trucks—driven to packing plants, where they are bathed in chlorine and either mineral oiled or waxed, and then they’re put on palettes in warehouse-like buildings, where they are gassed with ethylene. And ethylene is the same gas that plants normally produce to ripen their fruit, but in this case, all it does is turn the fruit the right color. It doesn’t do anything to affect the ripeness; it merely causes the tomatoes to turn orange or red.

TP: For people who pick up the book and read it and want to either a) do something to improve working conditions in Florida or b) just find a better, healthier tomato for their family, what would you suggest they do in both those cases? What can the average person do? 

BE: Well, it’s the old answer, but in this case it’s more true than ever: local and seasonal. That’s the first step. And then the more local, the better. If you can grow half a dozen or three tomato plants in your garden, in your backyard, or on your patio or deck, do it. The next best thing would be going to the farmers’ market or farm stand, in season. 

Then, depending on how you feel, a lot of people have gone up to the produce managers in their supermarkets and said, “I cannot buy another tomato until these conditions are improved.” I wouldn’t take to endorsing any particular company, but the fact is that of all the supermarket chains in the country, the only one that has agreed to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers Fair Food Agreement is Whole Foods. So if you are geographically and financially able to buy tomatoes at Whole Foods, you can probably do that with some certainty that at least they were not picked by slaves.

TP: Why did you write Tomatoland, and what do you hope readers get from it?

BE: Everything I do in food journalism is based on the principle that you should tell people where their food comes from and how it’s produced, and let them make their own decisions. The food industry does not want you to know how food is produced. It’s as true in the beef industry as it is with the tomato industry or anybody. You’re supposed to think of food as something that just arrives in the supermarket and looks nice. So that’s what I hope. I hope people read it, understand how winter tomatoes are produced, and make their own decisions. 

Buy Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit

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