Tortured by Tomatoes: The Ugly Reality of Cheap Food

a too perfect tasteless tomatoI will never look at tomatoes the same way again. 

Chances are, I will never look at anything not locally grown the same way again. 

I'm about 80% of the way through the book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Food and my stomach has been turned more times than the pages while reading it. 

First, an admission: I assumed our silly obsession with out-of-season wintertime tomatoes to be a recent thing, say maybe from the 1950s--ever since food being cheap and easy became more important than food being good and healthy. No, according to author Barry Estabrook, Americans have demanded the tasteless wonders since the late 1800s. I've been blaming the wrong generation! Now I know. 

But maybe the longevity of that odd industry--the wintertime tomato--is the reason the "agricultural" practices in Florida, a major player in the winter tomato field, became as deplorable as they did. I am not talking careless pesticide use or lazy crop rotation here. I'm talking slavery, dead babies, and living conditions so far below poverty level that the cockroaches live--and eat--better than the farmworkers. As Estabrook points out, you have to wonder when the people picking our food are too poor to feed themselves and rely on a soup kitchen to survive.

All for what? So we can have tomatoes in winter. Cheap tomatoes in winter.
 
I'm not going to review the book, nor am I going to rehash the realities spotlighted in the book. You can read a spot-on review and recap of the book here. (And I strongly recommend you do!)

Instead, I'm going to ponder why we even have such a demand, a demand so strong that it leads to an industry so corrupt that people are enslaved just so we can have a spot of red topping our salads and garnishing our burgers. For a garnish is all that kind of tomato can be.

Estabrook explains why the winter tomato is tasteless. But I'm also interested in why we're willing to pay for it and worse, eat it? If it has no flavor, and we all know it doesn't, then why is the demand still so strong that the Florida tomato industry is still so powerful? 

This question is important because it has to do with eating locally grown food, as well. It's not just the tasteless tomato that's going to get picked on by foodies like me. It's the whole mindset that keeps us buying tasteless tomatoes...and as long as we're buying, Florida's producing!

As long as we're more interested in cheap and convenient than fair and tasty and healthy, we'll be eating tasteless tomatoes out of season and financially supporting the kinds of abhorrent practices exposed by Estabrook. 

Just yesterday as I was puttering in the kitchen, pondering the book and listening to the radio, I heard a commercial for a fast food joint offering super cheap meals. A burger for a dollar? A breakfast sandwich for as cheap? It's not just the consumer insisting on a tomato slice on the burger patty in February. It's the fast food industry that fuels this kind of agricultural aberration as well, and not just so there's a tomato in my taco. We have somehow got it into our heads that cheap food equals good food, at the same time that we're willing to pay higher prices for everything else: gas, cars, clothing, houses, furniture. Heck, we're willing to pay more for a bottle of water than we are for a head of lettuce!

Does that make sense? The one thing that nourishes us is the one thing we're skimping on? We'll indulge in an expensive suit or sofa, but get me the lowest price on those apples please, and why cook at home when it's cheaper to hit the drive through? 

Tomatoland exposes the evils of industrial agriculture. But we can't only insist that Florida growers clean up their act by reducing deadly pesticide use and paying fair wages. We have to look to our mindset as a society and ask ourselves, why are we so obsessed with food being cheap? How did we get so disconnected from our food sources that children today don't even know a carrot grows in the ground? What will we do in the future if the infrastructure breaks down and industrial ag can no longer supply our bottomless demand for cheap and convenient...while the farmland in our own backyards is paved over and built on? 

Kudos to Estabrook for this book. It's an amazing, well-told investigative story into one area of industrial agriculture that needs exposing. Now can we take it the next step? Instead of saying "no" to tomatoes on our subway sandwiches, can we say yes to more locally grown food...and be willing to pay for it? 

I said above that if you're not planning to read the book, you should read this review so you know a little of what happens in the world of industrial agriculture. As Hank Will, Editor in Chief at Grit.com, says in the review, "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit is a must read for everyone who eats."

If you're eating, be thinking. That's all I ask.