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If you bite into a tomato between the months of October and June, chances are that tomato came from Florida. The Sunshine State accounts for one-third of all fresh tomatoes produced in the United States — and virtually all of the tomatoes raised during the fall and winter seasons.
But the tomatoes grown in Florida differ dramatically from the red garden varieties you might grow in your backyard. They're bred to be perfectly formed — so that they can make their way across the U.S. and onto your dinner table without cracking or breaking.
"For the last 50 or more years, tomato breeders have concentrated essentially on one thing and that is yield — they want plants that yield as many or as much as possible," writer Barry Estabrook tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "They also want those fruits to be able to stand up to being harvested, packed, artificially turned orange [with ethylene gas] and then shipped away and still be holding together in the supermarket a week or 10 days later."
Estabrook, a freelance food writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times and The Washington Post, looks at the life of today's mass-produced tomato — and the environmental and human costs of the tomato industry — in his book Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit. The book was based on a James Beard Award-winning article that originally appeared in Gourmet magazine, where Estabrook was a contributing editor before publication ceased in 2009.
Estabrook says the mass-produced tomatoes in today's supermarkets lack flavor because they were bred for enduring long journeys to the supermarket — and not for taste.
"As one large Florida farmer said, 'I don't get paid a single cent for flavor,' " says Estabrook. "He said, 'I get paid for weight. And I don't know of any supermarket shopper who tastes her tomatoes before she puts them in her shopping cart.' ... It's not worth commercial plant breeders' while to breed for taste because their customers — the large farmers — don't get paid for it."
As a result, customers have become accustomed to the flavorless tomatoes that dot supermarket shelves, says Estabrook.
"I was speaking to a person in their 30s recently and she said she had never recalled tasting anything other than a supermarket tomato," he says. "I think that wanting a tomato in the winter of winter — or wanting a little bit of orange on the plate ... is inherent in a lot of our shopping decisions. We expect an ingredient to be on the supermarket shelves 365 days a year, whether or whether not it's in season or tastes any good."
Let's Call The Whole Thing Off?
Though most of our tomatoes come from Florida, the state isn't necessarily the best place to grow the crop, says Estabrook. Most tomatoes are grown in sand, which contains few nutrients and organic materials. In addition, Florida's humidity breeds large populations of insects, which means tomato growers need to apply chemical pesticides on a weekly basis.
"In order to get a successful crop of tomatoes, the official Florida handbook for tomato growers lists 110 different fungicides, pesticides and herbicides that can be applied to a tomato field over the course of the growing season," he says. "And many of those are what the Pesticide Action Network calls 'bad actors' — they're kind of the worst of the worst in the agricultural chemical arsenal."
Florida applies more than eight times the amount of pesticide and herbicides as does California, the next leading tomato grower in the country. Part of this has to do with the fact that California processes tomatoes that are used for canning — and therefore don't have to look as good as their Florida counterparts. But part of this also has to do with consumers.
"It's the price we pay for insisting we have food out of season and not local," he says. "We foodies and people in the sustainable food movement chant these mantras, 'local, seasonable, organic, fair-trade, sustainable,' and they almost become meaningless because they're said so often and you see them in so many places. If you strip all those away, they do mean something, and what they mean is that you end up with something like a Florida tomato in the winter — which is tasteless."
On tomato nutrition today versus 40 years ago
"My mother, in the '60s could buy a tomato in the supermarket that had 30 to 40 percent more vitamin C and way more niacin and calcium. The only area that the modern industrial tomato beats its Kennedy-administration counterpart is in sodium."
On working conditions on tomato farms
"Of the legal jobs available, picking tomatoes is at the very bottom of the economic ladder. I came into this book chronicling a case of slavery in southwestern Florida that came to light in 2007 and 2008. And it was shocking. I'm not talking about near-slavery or slavery-like conditions. I'm talking about abject slavery. These were people who were bought and sold. These were people who were shackled in chains at night or locked in the back of produce trucks with no sanitary facilities all night.
"These were people who were forced to work whether they wanted to or not and if they didn't, they were beaten severely. If they tried to escape, they were either beaten worse or in some cases, they were killed. And they received little or no pay. It sounds like 1850. ... There have been seven [legal cases] in the last 10 or 15 years ... successfully brought to justice in Florida involving slavery. And 1,200 people have been freed. The U.S. Attorney for the district in Southern Florida claims that that just represents a tiny, tiny tip of an iceberg because it's extraordinarily difficult to prosecute a modern-day slavery case."
On undocumented workers
"I've seen estimates that nationally, 70 percent of the low-ranking farm workers are undocumented people from southern Mexico and Central America. These people arrive in this country — they're often shipped here from their home villages — and they arrive in a land where they certainly don't speak English. Many of them don't speak Spanish because they're indigenous so they're more comfortable in these indigenous languages.
"They're stuck in the middle of the Everglades in some trailer camp. They don't know where they are. They're frightened to go to the police because they're here illegally and also because back home, the police are often thugs and you don't want to go to them anyway. So they're completely vulnerable. They don't want to make any noise — they just want to work, make a bit of money and that leaves them totally vulnerable."
On how the Florida tomato industry is improving working conditions
"There's a group called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) that's named after a small city in Florida. And the CIW is this loose, grass-roots collection of people who've been working, really since 1993, to improve labor conditions. The growers had steadfastly refused to as much as speak to these people until last November when the growers came forward and said 'OK, we will sign off on what's called the fair food agreement,' which gives the workers the right to get an extra penny per pound of tomatoes they pick. They're paid on a piece basis. A penny a pound — big deal. But that's the difference between making $40-$50 a day and $70-$80 a day for a tomato worker — the difference between barely able to feed your family, if that, to a crummy, but OK wage. In addition to that, there's such radical concepts as time clocks in the fields ... the requirement that they put up tarpaulins so there can be a shady area in these fields where people can have lunch and other breaks, which is also a new concept."