Monday, June 20, 2011


There's a new book out about Tomatoes - specifically how they are grown and harvested to satisfy the demand of people who expect tomatoes year-round, especially the fast-food giants. It's a sad tale about the hidden costs of our "cheap and plentiful" food supply. Boing Boing reports you can read excepts here. From the book:

From a purely botanical and horticultural perspective, you would have to be an idiot to attempt to commercially grow tomatoes in a place like Florida. The seemingly insurmountable challenges start with the soil itself. Or more accurately, the lack of it. Although an area south of Miami has limestone gravel as a growing medium, the majority of the state's tomatoes are raised in sand. Not sandy loam, not sandy soil, but pure sand, no more nutrient rich than the stuff vacationers like to wiggle their toes into on the beaches of Daytona and St. Pete.
Why bother trying to grow something as temperamental as a tomato in such a hostile environment?
The answer has nothing to do with horticulture and everything to do with money. Florida just happens to be warm enough for a tomato to survive at a time of year when the easily accessed population centers in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast, with their hordes of tomato-starved consumers, are frigid, their fields frozen solid under carpets of snow. But for tomatoes to survive long enough to take advantage of that huge potential market, Florida growers have to wage what amounts to total war against the elements. Forget the Hague Convention: We're talking about chemical, biological, and scorched-earth warfare against the forces of nature.
Boing Boing: The Unbearable Sadness of Winter Tomatoes

Mark Bittman devoted a column to the book, highlighting especially the awful conditions endured by the workers, who work under a literal system of slavery!

The tomato fields of Immokalee are vast and surreal. An unplanted field looks like a lousy beach: the “soil,” which is white sand, contains little in the way of nutrients and won’t hold any water. To grow tomatoes there requires mind-boggling amounts of fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides (on roughly the same acreage of tomatoes, Florida uses about eight times as many chemicals as California). The tomatoes are, in effect, grown hydroponically, and the sand seems useful mostly as a medium for holding stakes in place.
Most of the big purchasers, like Wal-Mart and McDonald’s, want firm, “slicing” tomatoes, because their destination is a burger or a sandwich, so the tomatoes are picked at what is called “mature green,” which isn’t mature at all but bordering on it. Tomatoes with any color other than green are too ripe to ship, and left to rot; I’ve posted a couple of pictures I took of those on my blog. The green tomatoes are gassed — “de-greened” is the chosen euphemism — to “ripen” them; the plants themselves are often killed with an herbicide to hasten their demise and get ready for the next crop.

The process, not to put too fine a point on it, is awful, but the demand is there — Florida ships about a billion pounds of tomatoes a year — and the main question has not been quality but fairness to the workers. (Estabrook profiles a successful Florida tomato farmer who’s gone organic, but since it’s inarguable that this is a locale and climate that’s hostile to tomatoes in the first place, that can’t be easy. Here’s the reality: you’re not going to get a billion pounds of good tomatoes out of Florida. Ever.)
Unlike corn and soy, tomatoes’ harvest cannot be automated; it takes workers to pick that fruit. And not only have workers been enslaved, they have been routinely beaten, subject to sexual harassment, exposed to toxic chemicals (Estabrook mercilessly describes the tragic results of this) and forced to wait for hours to find out whether they have work on a given day. Oh, and they’re underpaid.
Mark Bittman: The True Cost of Tomatoes

Things aren't much better in Europe:

The exploitation of tens of thousands of migrants used to grow salad vegetables for British supermarkets has been uncovered by a Guardian investigation into the €2bn-a-year (£1.6bn) hothouse industry in southern Spain.

Charities working with illegal workers during this year's harvest claim the abuses meet the UN's official definition of modern-day slavery, with some workers having their pay withheld for complaining. Conditions appear to have deteriorated further as the collapse of the Spanish property boom has driven thousands of migrants from construction to horticulture to look for work.

The Guardian's findings include:

• Migrant workers from Africa living in shacks made of old boxes and plastic sheeting, without sanitation or access to drinking water.

• Wages that are routinely less than half the legal minimum wage.

• Workers without papers being told they will be reported to the police if they complain.

• Allegations of segregation enforced by police harassment when African workers stray outside the hothouse areas into tourist areas.

The situation of migrants working in the tomato, pepper, cucumber and courgette farms of Almeria is so desperate that the Red Cross has been handing out free food to thousands of them. Its local co-ordinator described conditions as "inhuman". Anti-Slavery International said the Guardian's evidence was "deeply disturbing", and raised the "spectre of de facto state sanctioning of slavery in 21st century Europe".

Nor is it sustainable:

The area has become one of the world's largest centres of intensive agriculture, and ecologists say overproduction is exhausting the land.

Intensive irrigation has caused the dry earth to suck in salty sea water from the Mediterranean. Salination could ultimately return this region to desert once more.

Manolo Sanchez, a banker who grew up here, spends much of his spare time campaigning - trying to stop the spread of the invernaderos, which are now approaching national parkland:

"I've known this area since I was five years old. Farming here is beyond the capacity of the soil and the water supply," he says.

"There's no limitation on the building of greenhouses, nor planning regulations. We have reached the limit."

Tensions Grow In Spain's Tomato Gardens

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