my favorite part of tomatoes is the variety, which you absolutely won't see in a supermarket and sadly will have to wait until next summer's farmer's market to appreciate. they run the spectrum from deep purple to ruby red, orange, yellow, and (some of my favorites) mr stripy and green zebras.
i'm in the middle of reading a book that i can't not share - TOMATOLAND by barry estabrook. in the words of the quote on the front cover: "If you have ever eaten a tomato – or ever plan to – you must read Tomatoland" (ruth reichl). so, i'm going to take some time to share what is uncovered in this book. it's difficult to read (i've cried), but ignorance is not an excuse for participating in slavery, human trafficking, and untold human abuses (not to mention assaults on the environment). my hope is that as you read this, you will be encouraged to take some time to think about the impact your food choices have in the big picture. i recognize that everyone can't afford (or even find) local and/or organic food; however, i believe that those of us who can have a responsibility to work toward positive change for people (and the earth) that can't fight for that themselves. and in the process, maybe our taste buds will thank us, too. my hope is that the more we know, the more we are empowered to make decisions that will bring freedom and life (and FLAVOR!), not just near-sighted cost-saving choices about what we eat.
Estabrook chronicles the tomato industry in Florida, which provides most conventional "market fresh" tomatoes year-round (as opposed to California's industry, which provides most tomatoes for canning and has more regulations protecting workers & controlling pesticide use). these tomatoes are picked as underripe, hard, green orbs able to survive being moved and shipped for thousands of miles. they turn reddish when exposed to ethylene gas (it's a hormone that tomatoes naturally excrete in the ripening process. this artificial process gives color but sadly not flavor), and have a shelf-life of about 3 weeks. the Florida Growers Exchange has uber-strict standards about size, smoothness, shape, and color... but notably absent from that list is a consideration of flavor.
the companies that grow tomatoes operate things by hiring Crew Bosses, who in turn hire the actual farm workers. many of these people are migrant workers, often undocumented, following the lure of making decent money to send back to their family in Mexico or Central America. despite their illegal/undocumented status in the US, these are HUMAN BEINGS. made in God's image, just like you and me. there are no excuses for how these people are often treated in the large agribusiness world. between 1997 - 2009, over 1,000 men and women have been freed from slavery in 7 cases. not slave-like conditions or hard work, but human trafficking. slavery. in our nation in the 21st century. for more information about a really amazing coalition of people fighting for better treatment, check out the Coalition of Imokolee Workers (and consider letting YOUR grocery store know that you care).
these folks are also regularly subject to intentional and neglectful exposure to lethal pesticides, including methyl bromide, an extremely toxic chemical that has been phased out by most nations, but is still permitted for tomato and strawberry farming. I find it hard to quite understand pesticide exposure, but one worker in the book described it as being "Just like somebody had taken a big old can of Raid and looked at me and sprayed it right in my face full blast and never stopped until it got empty" (p. 63). this pesticide has been linked with severe birth defects (limbless babies) and infant deaths. horrible, just horrible.
fortunately, there is hope. there are (a few) men and women fighting through law and education and housing to protect basic human rights in agriculture. there are organic and local farms that pay living wages and either don't use pesticides or use them safely. several fast food and food industry businesses have signed on to the CIW's Campaign for Fair Food (incl. Mickey D's, Burger King, Whole Foods, Yum! Brands; sadly few grocery stores).
this issue goes beyond tomatoes: this is just one example of the hidden abuses that are beginning to be brought to life... and how our small choices have big impacts.
sources: Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook. Andrew McMeel Publishing: Kansas City, 2011.
and THIS article also by Estabrook
photos: tim padalino at the charlottesville city market. 2010.