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Book Review: Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook

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If you are looking for a feel-good book, Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook isn’t it. In fact, if you aren’t prepared to be deeply disturbed, upset, angry, and disgusted, I don’t recommend reading this book at all. If, however, you are prepared to take the red pill, go down the rabbit hole, and wake up to some realities of the world, read Tomatoland. Read it now.

Seems pretty innocuous doesn’t it? The tomato industry—hardly the stuff of corruption, violence, and chemical warfare, or so you might think. Unfortunately, it is. In particular, the book addresses the Florida winter tomato industry, which supplies most of those insipid, pinkish tomatoes you find in the grocery store in winter or in fast-food meals. You know the ones that don’t taste like anything at all and are firm enough that you might be able to play a game of tennis with them?

Lack of taste (and nutrients) is just one of the tragedies associated with the growing of this fruit—and probably the least upsetting, which says a lot coming from someone who dearly prizes the flavor of food. The worst crimes of this industry are perpetrated on the environment the fruits grow in and upon the people who pick them. In crisp, unsentimental language devoid of hyperbole, Barry Estabrook details some of the atrocities committed in the name of the winter tomato.

First up is a shocking catalogue of the chemical warfare waged on the soil—if you can still call it soil—to grow the hard, green bomblets that eventually make their way north and into your salad. As it turns out, Florida happens to be one of the worst places in the country for growing tomatoes. The soil, or sand rather, is nutrient poor. The climate is extremely variable and humid, which allows all kinds of fungi, pests, and weeds to take hold and ruin a crop. To manage these challenges, the tomato industry carpet bombs fields with massive quantities of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Many of the chemicals used are Class I pesticides, which are considered highly toxic. For example, the material safety data sheet (MSDS) for methyl bromide states that it “may be fatal if inhaled and harmful if swallowed or absorbed through the skin. It is a neurotoxin and a severe irritant to the upper and lower respiratory tract, skin, and eyes.”

These aren’t chemicals we like to imagine eating, and they horrify us with the thought of what they might be doing to the environment. But worst of all is what they do to the laborers in the tomato fields—who are both the victims and the heroes of this story. Much of the Florida tomato industry has taken a laissez-faire attitude when it comes to regulations regarding chemical applications and worker safety. Workers are routinely exposed to these chemicals and experience ill health effects ranging from headaches, nausea, and chemical burns to birth defects and death.

And the story of worker abuse doesn’t stop there. Estabrook details maltreatment of laborers from economic exploitation to outright slavery. In one harrowing passage, he describes what happened to some enslaved workers: “If Domingo or any of the others in the crew became ill or too exhausted to go to the fields, they were kicked in the head, beaten with fists, slashed with knives or broken bottles, and shoved into trucks to be hauled to the worksites. Some were manacled in chains.”

At the depths of this book, I had started planning this article and decided to title it “Why I Will Never Eat a Florida Tomato Again,” but to Estabrook’s credit, the second half of this book made me rethink this position. From the horrors emerge some bright lights—stories of people who are willing to help and in some cases to put themselves at risk to do so, including a lawyer willing to fight for a badly deformed infant, a bus driver who lost her job for speaking out, courageous farm laborers willing to go undercover to expose slavery, church groups that host soup kitchens, and coalitions of workers who work to change the system. These stories made me realize that simply boycotting Florida tomatoes does little to create change. Supporting the people who are working to make a difference does.

Every once in a while, a book comes along that throws over what we think we know about things; examples include Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. These are books that have the potential to change the world. Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit is just such a book. If you care about the food you eat, about justice, about the environment, about human beings, then you need to read this book.

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