How Industrial Farming 'Destroyed' The Tasty Tomato
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."
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
One of the great pleasures of summer is fresh, homegrown tomatoes, but in the winter, and even in the summer, lots of tomatoes are tough and tasteless. Why can't or won't modern agribusiness deliver a decent-tasting tomato?
That's the main question that Barry Estabrook set out to answer in his new book "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit." Much of his book is set in the tomato fields of Florida, where the soil and humidity, he says, are actually very inhospitable to growing tomatoes. Yet one-third of our fresh tomatoes are raised there, and from October to June, virtually all the fresh market, field-grown tomatoes in the country come from Florida.
Barry Estabrook won a James Beard Award this year for his blog Politics of the Plate. He contributes to the Atlantic magazine's food website. He was a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine for eight years, writing investigative articles about where food comes from.
Barry Estabrook, welcome to FRESH AIR. You tell a great story at the beginning of your book, about how you got interested in researching why so many tomatoes are hard and tasteless. Tell us the story.
Mr. BARRY ESTABROOK (Author, "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit"): It happened several years ago, when I was driving along Interstate 75 in southwestern Florida. I came up behind a truck -I first took it for a gravel truck. It was one of those open-back trucks.
And then as I pulled closer, I realized it was full of green orbs of some sort, and again, I thought, well, they look like Granny Smith apples and then realized, oh wait a second, Granny Smith apples don't grow in Florida. And as I came closer, it was full of tomatoes, perfectly green tomatoes. There was not a hint of pink or orange or red, just green tomatoes.
And the truck hit a bump in the road, and a few of these flew off and nearly went through the windshield of my car. I sort of pulled over, chastened, and noticed in the ditch that the ditch was littered with these green tomatoes.
And I realized that, wait a second, these things have survived falling 10 feet off a semi trailer, smacking onto the pavement of an interstate highway at 60 miles an hour, and they've landed in the ditch, and they're not only not smashed, I couldn't see that any of them had even been cracked.
GROSS: And what did that tell you?
Mr. ESTABROOK: Well, it put me in mind of my own garden tomatoes back home, where if I pick more than one or two and sort of cradle them under my arm and try to get them back into the kitchen, half the time they've spontaneously split in the 25-yard stroll.
And it's - you know, I thought how did we get here? How did we take something so tender and create these things, these killer tomatoes?
GROSS: Now, your book focuses on Florida tomatoes, which is where the incident that you just described took place. And you say that Florida accounts for one-third of the fresh-tomatoes raised in the U.S. And from October to June, virtually all the fresh market field-grown tomatoes in the country come from Florida.
You write that Florida tomatoes are bred to be this way, to be perfectly formed, green, hard orbs. Why is that? Is that so that they could travel effectively, like this truck full of tomatoes? I mean, these tomatoes were not going to get damaged in, you know, in the ride from Florida to whatever supermarket they're going to end up in.
Mr. ESTABROOK: Right. For the last 50 or more years, tomato breeders, people who breed commercial tomato seeds, have concentrated, essentially, on one thing, Terry, and that is yield. They want plants that yield as many or as much as possible.
And they also want those fruits to be able to stand up to being harvested, packed, artificially ripened - artificially turned orange, ripened is too polite a term for what happens to them - and then you're right, shipped away and still be at least holding together in the supermarket produce section a week or 10 days later.
GROSS: Now, if the tomatoes are picked when they're green, and they're hard, and they're shipped that way to the supermarket, I mean, that would be fine if they eventually ripened and got delicious. Do they eventually turn delicious?
Mr. ESTABROOK: Well, you know, supermarket tomatoes can speak for themselves on that point: no, in my opinion. The trouble is these green tomatoes, the industry likes to call them mature greens. And to you and I, they're simply a green tomato. And in fact to really tell the difference between a mature green tomato, which evidently will have some flavor, and a simple green green tomato, you have to cut it open, and they don't do that when they harvest. They just harvest all the tomatoes of a certain size.
So if you get a tomato that isn't mature green and expose it - they expose it to ethylene gas in a warehouse, and that turns them the right color. It's the same gas that the tomato plant will emit when it gets ready to ripen its fruit. But it doesn't add any flavor. So if there's no flavor there to begin with, there's going to be no flavor when the process is over. It will look ripe, but there'll be nothing inside it.
GROSS: Why isn't there more consideration given to the taste, as opposed to just the ability to withstand a long trip and the color?
Mr. ESTABROOK: Well, as one large Florida farmer said - he said I don't get paid a single cent for flavor. He said I get paid for weight. And then he went on to say, and I don't know of any supermarket shopper who tastes her tomatoes before she puts them in her shopping cart.
So the emphasis has - taste has simply gotten lost in the process. It's not worth commercial plant breeders' while to breed for taste, because their customers, the large farmers, don't get paid for it.
GROSS: Do you think a part of the fault lies in us, the consumers, that we want perfectly round, perfectly red, unblemished tomatoes?
Mr. ESTABROOK: Exactly. I think that wanting a tomato in the middle of winter, or wanting a little bit of orange on the plate, or not really thinking that this is almost a bait and switch, that pretty fruit is not going to deliver the promised flavor - it's 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.
GROSS: Okay, and that's part of the issue here, is most of the tomatoes that we get in the winter come from Florida, and you say that Florida really isn't the ideal place to grow tomatoes because of the climate, because of the soil. What are some of the inherent problems of growing tomatoes in Florida?
Mr. ESTABROOK: First and foremost, the state is notoriously humid. And tomatoes, their ancestors, are native to extremely dry areas of the western coast of South America, desert conditions. And, you know, it's why tomatoes grow so well in Italy and parts of California - they love dry, sunny days.
Florida's very humid, perfect conditions for all manner of molds, funguses, bacteria, insects, nematodes, you name it - that prey on tomato plants. So the climate, to begin with, the climate is simply not right.
The second big problem is Florida's soil, where tomatoes are grown - and soil is probably a misnomer. Most Florida tomatoes are grown in sand, pure and simple. It's the same sand you find on Daytona Beach. And so it's got no nutrients. It's got no organic matter in it. And the farmers have to, essentially, add everything - all the food the plant is going to get in its lifetime into the ground before they plant, seal it over with plastic, then put the plants in and hope there's enough nutrients artificially put in that sand to get a harvest.
GROSS: You also write about the pesticides that have to be used because of Florida's insect population, which is never killed off in the winter by a hard frost, by days and days of hard frost, or months and months of hard frost, and all the funguses that you mentioned. So do you think insecticides become a big issue for Florida-grown tomatoes, more so than for tomatoes grown in other places?
Mr. ESTABROOK: Oh, totally. The - in order to get a crop, a successful crop of tomatoes, the official Florida handbook for tomato growers lists 110 different fungicides, pesticides and herbicides, 110 different ones, that can be applied to a tomato field over the course of the growing season. And many of those are what the Pesticide Action Network calls bad actors. They're kind of the worst of the worst in the chemical - the agricultural chemical arsenal.
And they have to apply these weekly. They have people go through the fields called scouts, and they kind of do up a menu as they walk through the fields looking at the plants, hand it to the guy in charge of the field and say this week, you have to spray these chemicals.
And that - it's really chemical warfare from the time the plants - from before when the plants are put in the ground because they sterilize the ground before they put the plants in, until they're harvested.
GROSS: Is this very different from how other fruits and vegetables are grown in other places? Is what you're describing really unique to tomatoes in Florida, or is this just the state of agribusiness now?
Mr. ESTABROOK: Well, Florida and California grow almost exactly the same acreage of fresh market tomatoes. Florida farmers apply eight times the amount of pesticides and herbicides to their crops than California growers, eight times.
GROSS: Now, isn't that in part because the California tomato industry is largely for canning? So, like, the looks of the tomatoes don't count. They don't have to be trucked a long way looking unblemished because they're going to be canned.
Mr. ESTABROOK: That's true, Terry, but I was talking about what's called fresh market tomatoes in the industry, which are the tomatoes you buy. Yes, most of California's tomatoes are canning, and they may as well be apples and oranges they're so different. But if you're comparing fresh market tomatoes to fresh market tomatoes, California and Florida grow about the same amount of acres each year, and Florida farmers apply eight times the pesticide and herbicide and fungicide that their California counterparts on the same acreage.
GROSS: Again, is this kind of like the fault of consumers who - you know, we want tomatoes in the winter, and this is the price that we pay for getting them?
Mr. ESTABROOK: It's the price we pay for insisting we have food out of season and not local. I mean, we foodies and people in the sustainable food movement, you know, we chant these sort of 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, you know, 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.
It doesn't have near the nutrition that a tomato did in the 1960s. My mother in the '60s could buy a tomato in the supermarket that had 30 or 40 percent more vitamin C, way more niacin, way more calcium. In fact, the only area that the modern industrial tomato beats its Kennedy-administration counterpart is in sodium. It's got 14 times as much sodium in it.
GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is Barry Estabrook, and he's the author of the new book "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit." He writes the blog Politics of the Plate, which won a James Beard Award this year. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more about tomatoes. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Barry Estabrook. He's a writer about food. His new book is called "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit." He also writes the blog Politics of the Plate, which won a James Beard Award this year.
So we have been talking about why winter tomatoes that are grown in Florida are so tasteless and kind of textureless. You'd think maybe that although the Florida tomato industry doesn't produce the tastiest of tomatoes that it would lucrative business, but you write that it isn't, that the industry is often at risk. They have a lot of problems. So it's not like they're making money hand over fist.
Mr. ESTABROOK: well, what it is is a high-stakes gamble. The Florida tomato industry now is controlled - almost all the commercial tomatoes are grown by a dozen huge farming corporations. A few years ago, there were hundreds. Now it's down to that. They've been falling by the wayside.
And it's a high-stakes gamble because, well, almost every year or certainly every other year, there's a freeze in Florida in the wintertime, which kills the tomato plants. It happened this winter. It happened the winter before. They were wiped out.
So they lost millions of dollars per acre because of the weather. It's a high-stake gamble because they're competing with tomatoes that are coming in from Mexico. And again, often the weather conditions or whatever in Mexico are good at a time when they're not so good here in Florida, and so again, they can lose their shirts even if they are getting a crop.
There are times when the prices are high, and Florida has tomatoes, and these big companies make a lot of money that they can salt away for periods when it's not so good. But by and large, it's an industry that's losing ground.
I mean, a few years ago, Mexico accounted for something like 20 percent of the tomatoes we consume. It's now up around 30 percent. Canada and the Northern states are biting into the Florida tomato market with greenhouse tomatoes in the spring and fall that really didn't exist 10 years when Florida had the market to itself.
And the other thing is that the Florida tomato industry was really born of the era when you would go into a grocery store, and every single tomato was sold in those cardboard containers, sort of three tomatoes in a row wrapped in cellophane.
And, you know, I live in a little town in Vermont, and you can go into my local supermarket in December, and I did this past December, and there were 11 different tomato choices being offered. There were grape tomatoes, Roma tomatoes, tomatoes on the vine, organic tomatoes, hydroponic tomatoes. It's a changing industry, and Florida growers have been slow to pick up on that.
GROSS: Well, you not only write about how the tomatoes are grown in your book "Tomatoland," you write about the conditions of workers who pick the tomatoes. I'd like to talk about that a little bit with you. What were some of the problems with working conditions that you found?
Mr. ESTABROOK: I have to say that of the legal professions, legal jobs that are available to people in the United States, picking tomatoes in Florida is probably 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 '08. And it was shocking. You know, 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.
So 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. I mean, it sounds like 1850, not 2010.
GROSS: Was there a legal case that came out of this?
Mr. ESTABROOK: There have been seven in the last say 10 or 15 years, seven cases successfully brought to justice in Florida involving slavery. And 1,200 people have been freed. And 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.
GROSS: So of the cases you mentioned, the prosecution won?
Mr. ESTABROOK: They either won, or the defendants pled guilty.
GROSS: So many of the workers who are picking the tomatoes in South Florida are undocumented workers from Mexico. Does that leave them more vulnerable?
Mr. ESTABROOK: It's true. You know, I've seen estimates that nationally, 70 percent of the low-ranking farm workers are undocumented people from - largely from southern Mexico and Central America, Guatemala area. And you're exactly right. 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 really speak Spanish very well because they're indigenous people, 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 for - because they're here illegally. They're completely vulnerable. They don't want to make any noise. They just want to sort of work, make a bit of money, and that leaves them totally vulnerable.
GROSS: Barry Estabrook will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit." He writes the blog Politics of the Plate. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross back with Barry Estabrook, author of the new book "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit." Estabrook won a James Beard Award this year for his blog "Politics of the Plate." For eight years he was a contributing editor at Gourmet magazine, where he wrote investigative articles about where food comes from.
When we left off, we were talking about the abuses men and women who pick tomatoes in South Florida have had to endure. There have even been convictions for enslaving workers.
Now things took a turn for the better last November. You wrote in an article that the Florida tomato industry went from being one of the most repressive employers in the country to being on the road to becoming one of the most progressive groups in the fruit and vegetable industry. Would you describe the change that took place?
Mr. ESTABROOK: It was unbelievable. One worker, tomato worker's advocate says it was a difference between a Dickensian workhouse and a modern factory, a modern car factory in terms of labor, the sea change in labor relations.
There's a group called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. It's named after a small city in southern, southwestern Florida called Immokalee. And the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is this loose, grass-roots collection of people who've been working, really since 1993, to improve labor conditions. And the growers had steadfastly refused to so much as speak to these people until last November when the growers came forward and said okay, we will sign on to what's called the fair food agreement, which it doesn't sound all that radical to me. It gives the workers the right to get an extra penny per pound for the tomatoes they pick.
Now a penny a pound again - big deal. But that's the difference between making $40 or $50 a day and $70 or $80 a day for a tomato worker. You know, the difference between barely being able to feed your family, if that, and a crummy, but okay wage.
And in addition to that, there's such radical concepts as time clocks in the fields so that they can punch in and actually record the real amount of time they work. The requirement that they put up little tarpaulins so that there can be a shady area in these fields where the people can have lunch, which is also a new concept that was recently introduced. So this came to pass last November.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. So what's responsible for this sea change? What changed in the industry that brought them around to signing this agreement?
Mr. ESTABROOK: Well, beginning in the '90s, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers had been working and working and working to get the growers to give them an increase. The basic wage of a tomato picker today is the same as it was in 1980. And the growers refused and said - with some reason - we can't do this because we're getting squeezed by all our big buyers, the Wal-Marts, the Safeways, the Krogers are squeezing us for every penny. We can't give a raise.
And then one - it was actually a worker at a meeting who said, well, you know, why don't we go for the end user then? And they started out with Taco Bell and it took them four years of demonstrations, hunger strikes, sit-ins. They got college students working to get Taco Bell outlets kicked off college campuses, and eventually Taco Bell came aboard with this extra penny a pound and basic fair labor agreement.
And then they moved on to McDonald's and Burger King, and eventually all of the major fast food chains signed on to this agreement and then were quickly followed by the food service companies that provide food for universities and museums and hospitals, they all came aboard. And about this time the tomato growers realized that there was a problem and two of them broke ranks. And once that had happened the game was over.
GROSS: So among the things you did was get the point of view of the Florida tomato growers industry. And what did you learn from that that helped broaden your perspective of what goes on?
Mr. ESTABROOK: I think what I learned from that was that it is - it's an industry that is under tremendous financial stress itself. The trouble is a Florida tomato by our standards they're big. You know, they have thousands of acres. But in the ballpark in which they're playing they're the smallest player. They have to deal first of all with the Wal-Marts and Krogers and Safeways and that's who they sell their tomatoes for. And you know how these big store buyers work is every year they come back and say we want a few more cents off the price. We want lower, lower prices - always lower.
On the other side underneath that the people the farmers deal with are the Monsantos of the world, the Duponts of the world, the oil companies. I mean not only oil that the petroleum that goes into their farm equipment and shipping tomatoes, but fertilizer is basically natural gas. It requires huge amounts of natural gas so those are set prices. The only place that they really have any play is what they pay the workers so the workers have been caught in this squeeze play.
I think the tomato growers have been at fault for turning a blind eye toward the abuses that were going on in their fields. But I think they've been forced to reduce, to keep the amount they pay their workers low because of these external pressures.
GROSS: If youre just joining us, my guest is Barry Estabrook. He's the author of the new book "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more about tomatoes. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Barry Estabrook. His new book is called "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit." He also writes the blog "Politics of the Plate" which won a James Beard Award this year.
Let's talk a little bit about the taste of tomatoes and the difficulties of breeding for taste. One of your criticisms of the Florida tomatoes, especially the ones that we eat in the winter, is that they might look pretty but they don't taste much. There isn't much taste there. You were, you visited a couple of people who breed tomatoes. You were on a tomato tasting panel. It's apparently very difficult to breed for taste because the taste of a tomato is so complex. What is so complex about the taste of a tomato?
Mr. ESTABROOK: Well, there's several things at play. The sort of - the foundation you first have to build is getting the right balance of acids, citric acid and malic acid, and malic acid is the acid that gives apples their tartness. You have to get those in balance with sugar, and that's the foundation. But then on top of that foundation you have to lay down, they don't know exactly but there's probably 15 or 20 chemicals called aromatic chemicals, which means chemicals that you can smell - and, you know, taste and smell are one in the same thing - that go into a tomato to give you that signature tomato flavor.
You compare that to a banana. There's really one chemical that goes into a banana that gives you a flavor that you would instantly recognize as banana. Tomatoes have these 15 or 20 and none of them smell or taste anything like a tomato in and of themselves. I smelt one, it smelled to me just like a nice rose. I smelt another and it smelled like Juicy Fruit gum. I smelt another and it smelled to me like a freshly mown lawn and so on. But together in the right quantities they deliver this taste. But so breeders have to be juggling all these in the right proportions to get a good tasting tomato.
GROSS: So what's one of the most interesting innovations in the tomato breeding industry going on right now?
Mr. ESTABROOK: There's a group of professors, including molecular biologists, food science people, taste psychologists, who are working to basically rebuild a tomato, a good tasting commercial tomato from the ground up. They're finding the chemicals, there's about five or six of those 15 or 20 that are really important and they're finding out which ones those are and are isolating and then going one step further and isolate the genes that manufacture those chemicals. And then they're reintroducing those genes through conventional breeding.
This isn't true genetically modified; it's through old-style breeding. But they're reintroducing plants with those genes into tough tomatoes to work the flavors back in. It's sort of one - it's almost molecule by molecule that they're working. But they're about halfway there and are saying within five or 10 years you could reach what, you know, tomatodom's Holy Grail...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ESTABROOK: ...which is something that can stand the indignities of modern agriculture and still deliver some taste. Theyll admit it's not going to be the full wattage of a summer garden tomato, but a decent tasting tomato, which is saying something.
GROSS: Let me just ask you a couple of questions about shrimp which you've written articles about. Shrimp is pretty cheap now relatively. But you say nearly 90 percent of the shrimp we eat comes from Asia and most of the shrimp are farmed in fetid pools. One commercial shrimp fisherman described it to you as sewage lagoons. What are these shrimp being grown in exactly?
Mr. ESTABROOK: Well, youre right. Ninety percent of the shrimp we eat come now mostly from countries in Asia; Thailand is a major producer, Vietnam, Bangladesh. And these shrimps are often grown in areas that used to be mangrove swamps, so they, you know, which are very valuable ecologically and environmentally.
And they clear the swamps and they build these ponds and stock enormous quantities of shrimp into these ponds, and in such concentration that it, this is, you know, shrimp defecate like anything else and they basically become sewage lagoons. And they pump the water back out of the ponds into the sea killing whatever fish happened to be left after they've destroyed the mangroves.
Oftentimes, they have to keep these shrimp on pretty much steady diets of drugs and antibiotics in order for them to survive. And some of those are antibiotics that are illegal to use period in food animals in the United States. Every so often, the FDA finds a shipment of shrimp coming into the country that contain traces of some of these very potent antibiotics which are not supposed to be used in food animals.
GROSS: Is this what's making it possible for us to have relatively cheap shrimp?
Mr. ESTABROOK: Exactly. I mean the shrimp used to be a luxury food. You know, the sort of going out to a steakhouse with your father getting a shrimp cocktail, and the little shrimp hanging over the crystal glass. And now they're, you know, they're a cheap food. They're almost getting to the level of hamburgs. You know, you can go to restaurants and have shrimp specials and that sort of thing and it's because these are mass produced on farms in countries where you don't have to pay people a lot of money, and where some of the environmental laws either don't exist or aren't enforced.
GROSS: So how do you know where the shrimp is that youre buying or that youre eating in a restaurant - where it came from?
Mr. ESTABROOK: Its difficult. In a restaurant, in a supermarket or a fish store fortunately we have laws called Country of Origin Labeling - C-O-O-L. And so if you look sometimes you have to look very hard at the fine print on a package of frozen shrimp, you will see which, it'll say, you know, product of Mexico, product of Thailand.
It's interesting because again, when I was doing research into the shrimp I went to my local supermarket and there were these bags of frozen shrimp in a one freezer, self-standing freezer compartment and it was sort of like a United Nations of developing countries. There's Ecuador, Mexico, Bangladesh, China...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ESTABROOK: ...all in the one cooler.
GROSS: Hmm. So are there countries that you try to buy shrimp from?
Mr. ESTABROOK: Yeah, the United States.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ESTABROOK: I think that the best environmental choices for shrimp are the -they're called pink shrimp off the West Coast or the main shrimp off the East Coast. They're little tiny guys, but they're caught wild and they're caught sustainably.
If you're very lucky and live in the Northwest and can get a hold of spot prawns, same thing. They're caught in an environmentally sensible way. Those are caught with like mini lobster traps that sit on the bottom and the shrimp go in. The next better thing is probably wild caught shrimp from the southeastern United States or the Gulf of Mexico. Environmentally they're not perfect because they have huge what's called bycatch in the industry, which means catching species other than the one you're fishing for. And most bycatches, juvenile fish, it'll be valuable either as food or just as valuable because of their environmental contribution, and they're thrown over dead. But that's sort of the order I would go with shrimp.
And I'm leery about shrimp that come from Asian countries, just because of the experiences with the FDA finding these things in them.
GROSS: You live part-time in New York and part-time in Vermont. And in Vermont you have - was it 30 acres?
Mr. ESTABROOK: I do.
GROSS: And you have chicken and livestock?
Mr. ESTABROOK: My chickens are my livestock.
GROSS: Oh, okay.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ESTABROOK: I don't have - I'm not a major, a major farmer by any stretch of the imagination. I have 30 acres, 10 of it's forest, 20 of it's a hay field I rent out to the neighbor, and I have enough left over to have a great big garden and 11 chickens. There used to be 12 but one had a run-in with a hawk recently.
GROSS: Oh gosh.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Okay. So you use the chickens for eggs?
Mr. ESTABROOK: Eggs. Yeah.
GROSS: How much work is that?
Mr. ESTABROOK: Chickens are great. Chickens are a lot easier than keeping a garden. You know, you feed them, you fill their feeders once a week or so, fill their waters once a week or so, and every day, every morning you go out and you get wonderful eggs. Get a bit of(ph) egg per chicken.
GROSS: Do you have a relationship with them?
Mr. ESTABROOK: Yes, I do. I eat their eggs every morning, period.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: No, I mean like do you feel like they have personalities and like...
Mr. ESTABROOK: No, I don't. No, I don't...
GROSS: ...they're your friends and...
Mr. ESTABROOK: They're not my friends. They do have personalities. The interesting is these chickens, because I live in Vermont, in the wintertime they become indoor - they go into the shed and they spend their winters there, living the life that most chickens, most industrial chickens probably live. They're probably better than most industrial chickens, they have more room. But still they're inside. And on the first day of spring, when I open the door and I let them out, it's like kids getting out of school. You don't think a chicken would remember. You don't think - and they just rush outside and they flap and they, you know, I find it hard to believe these people who say that battery, chickens that are kept in cages, you know, as big as a loose leaf sheet of paper for their whole lives are in any way content, seeing that.
GROSS: Just one more question. What were your favorite foods when you were growing up?
Mr. ESTABROOK: My Madeleine. Proust had Madeleine?
Mr. ESTABROOK: My Madeleine was actually tomatoes.
Mr. ESTABROOK: Yeah. It was, I think...
GROSS: Not pizza, just tomatoes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ESTABROOK: We didn't have pizza in Indiana, I don't think.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ESTABROOK: No, we did. But no, you know, I'm sure I need some therapy on this, but my father was a very busy traveling businessman and I was really crummy at sports and things. But the one thing we did have in common was on weekends he always had six or eight tomato plants. He was a one crop gardener but always had six or eight tomato plants. And I can still remember sort of being out there when he was showing me how to plant them and smelling the leaves - that tomato leaf smell that you can never forget once you get it in your head. And I remember picking them with him and just having them for lunch. He'd, you know, he'd slice them in half and put some salt and mayonnaise on them, period. And so that - I love tomatoes. I love a good tomato, which is one of the reasons I'm upset with the stuff we're getting today.
GROSS: All right. Well, Barry Estabrook, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. ESTABROOK: Thank you, Terry. It was a pleasure.
GROSS: Barry Estabrook is the author of "Tomatoland: How Modern Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit." He writes the blog Politics of the Plate. You can read an excerpt of his book on our website, freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.