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Book Review: The Red and Rotten Tomatoes

Barry Estabrook, Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2011.

Reviewed by Don Lassus, MD

Don is a former Catholic Worker at Casa Juan Diego and resident physician training in family medicine in Los Angeles County.

A frequent task at Casa Juan Diego is to drive guests to the downtown bus stations for travel to job prospects in points elsewhere.  On one such errand to a Latino bus line I vividly recall sending a guest to Immokalee, Florida. An oddly named destination, but there it was on the big map in the bus lobby. “Que le vaya bien,” I probably said, not really knowing what the attraction was to middle-of-no-where Florida.

In Barry Estabrook’s new foodie exposé Tomatoland, the mystery of Immokalee and her most alluring fruit (or is it a vegetable?) – the tomato – are explained.  To travel with Estabrook to Tomatoland is an emotional journey that begins innocently by searching for the non-existent flavor in the supermarket tomato, but ultimately leads to the sinister shadows of modern day slavery rings before bringing us back to hope.

The first mind-boggling realization in the flavor conundrum is that while Florida produces one third of all tomatoes and virtually all the winter tomatoes in the US, these fruits are not meant to be mass produced in Florida. Tomatoes are foremost a dry climate vine, originating in the coastal deserts of Ecuador, Peru, and Chile.  Sure, Florida is warm like the desert, but that is about the only thing going for Florida tomato production. The rest is dependent on $2000 per acre of petroleum based fertilizers and the most toxic pesticides allowed in farming to kill the humidity-loving fungi, bugs, and blights that ravage Florida. By comparison California canned tomato production (a more appropriate environment) uses 1/8 the pesticides per acre. Just as ludicrous, most industrial tomatoes are grown on sand devoid of all nutrients.  The only sources of plant food are fossil fuel fertilizers that are laid thick in the ground.

The final product, of course, is fairly tasteless. The reason being, such tomatoes are plucked while hard and green, able to resist bumps and bruises during transport to stores and fast-food joints north and west. To get them red, the packhouses gas the green tomatoes with ethylene, the chemical that is naturally produced when left on the vine. Producers can change the color, but only by staying on the vine does taste mature. That we tolerate such green-gassed-red tomatoes harkens back to Florida’s only tomato advantage – warm winter weather.  Despite our taste buds telling us it’s not really worth it, Americans still have a voracious appetite for tomatoes in all seasons, not just summer.

In South Florida, such violence to the land does not stop with injecting oil fertilizer in the sand and using deadly pesticides on the vines. It touches the workers, too. I imagine the young man I shipped off to Immokalee working in the fields, stooped over, being sprayed by the pesticides, his life expectancy only 49 years. Or worse, he has been duped into becoming a modern-day slave. Yes, a slave.

Estabrook chronicles the heroic struggles of the undocumented Latin American immigrants who endure great suffering and violence to put  worthless and tasteless tomatoes in our salads.  Poignant to me as a doctor, is the story of Carlitos, a little boy born without arms and legs.  His mother was exposed to methyl bromide one of the most toxic pesticides in use, often being sprayed directly on workers while they hunch over the tomato plants.  She was not alone. Several other tomato pickers have given birth to babies with rare deformities.

Then there is the Navarette slavery case discovered in 2007, in which field workers were locked in trucks by their crew manager, made to defecate in the corner, fed little, and beaten and shackled if they attempted escape.  Even flagrant murder of workers and van drivers has occurred, as in the 1992 Miguel Flores case.  While these may seem like jarring extremes, the local federal prosecutor Douglas Molloy had five active slavery cases in the works when the book was in writing in 2010, and even more typical is the “company store” bondage of young men living in cramped trailers, paying exorbitant rent and often in debt to crew bosses for transportation costs. These stories shake my often idealized vision of agrarian life. This is a system far from the dignity of the agronomic universities of which Peter Maurin dreamed in his vision of a new social order.

But there is hope. Tomatoland also tells the stories of crusading lawyers, such as Andrew Yaffa, Douglas Molloy and Gregory Schell, teachers, and city planners like Steven Kirk, people who made the choice to give voice to the voiceless undocumented immigrants. Carlitos, the child without arms and legs won a huge settlement, methyl bromide is being phased out, slavery rings are being uncovered, workers have recouped back pay, and housing standards are being improved.

But nothing inspires the soul like the story of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).  It started in 1993 when a gutsy Mexican immigrant, Lucas Benitez, began to organize workers after he stood down his violent boss alone while everyone turned their heads away. Then one day in 1996, Edgar, a 16 year old Guatemalan boy, staggered into the coalition office with his shirt bloodied by his crew boss.  That night 600 workers marched to the boss’s house with Edgar’s bloody shirt as a rallying flag. When encountered by 28 police cars they chanted, “This shirt is Edgar’s. It might be mine next. When you beat one of us, you beat us all.” The next morning when that boss’s van pulled into the usual parking lot, not a single worker boarded. Other crew bosses took notice and the CIW proved to themselves that united they could do much.

In the past decade the CIW has taken on even greater opponents in Taco Bell, McDonalds, Burger King, and the Florida Tomato Committee to guarantee an extra penny per pound of tomatoes they pick. This story is an even more amazing David vs. Goliath triumph that every soul can find hope in. Catholics can be proud, too, that the US Council of Catholic Bishops and the Campaign for Human Development were early supporters of the CIW. Visit them at www.ciw-online.org and support their work.

As contrast to the Florida industrial farms, Estabrook ends his book by highlighting the good alternatives. An organic farm in Florida and an heirloom tomato farmer in Pennsylvania show us that tasty, sweet, and acidy tomatoes can be made with good and safe labor practices that give dignity to the worker and the eater. To support such good alternatives, Tomatoland leads to a few conclusions: Try to eat tomatoes only in the summer, buy them at local farmer’s markets, and if you must, only buy organic tomatoes at the supermarket.

I recommend Tomatoland because it is ultimately about relationships – between the land and its fruit, the laborers and farm owners, the planter and the eater – and the message is hopeful for the person, planet, and palate.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXI, No. 4, September-October 2011.