Thursday, July 18, 2013

Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook

I love a good tomato. Nothing tastes like a warm ripe tomato right off the vine. Author Barry Estabrook agrees with me. In his book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, he examines the Florida tomato industry in detail. It’s clear that “taste” is no longer an important factor for most tomato growers. Instead the tomatoes need to be a uniform size and firm enough to stand up to rough handling during shipping. Oh, and if they show the least bit of pink when it is time to harvest them, they don’t get shipped. All tomatoes must be completely green; they are later gassed to turn them pink.

Estabrook dedication reads “For the men and women who pick the food we eat” and he sheds light on the state of migrant workers as well. As if the back-breaking conditions aren’t bad enough, tomato pickers are exposed to terrible pesticides that cause birth defects. They often aren’t given adequate instructions about working with pesticides, and many aren’t literate in English or Spanish and can’t read what little information they are given. According to Estabrook, Douglas Molloy, a U.S. attorney for Florida’s Middle District, “says that any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of  a slave. ‘That’s not an assumption…. That is a fact.’” (p. 75)

Overall I found Tomatoland very interesting, although a bit repetitive at times. It’s a quick read at only 193 pages including the epilogue. Estabrook covers a lot of ground in those pages, and I recommend Tomatoland to anyone interested in workers’ rights, environmental issues, and American agriculture, as well as to anyone who loves a good tomato.

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