Flawed Fruit: The Not-So-Rosy Reality of Industrial Tomato Farming in America

Those perfect-looking tomatoes in the supermarket have been stripped of nutrition and flavor, doused with pesticides, and were perhaps picked by slaves. How has agribusiness been able to so defile one of our favorite fruits?


| September 8, 2011



Tomatoland

Tomato fields are sprayed with more than 100 herbicides and pesticides. Fruits are picked green and artificially gassed until their skins acquire a marketable hue. Modern plant breeding produces tomatoes with dramatically reduced amounts of calcium, vitamin A and vitamin C. The drive for low costs has fostered a thriving, modern-day slave trade. In “Tomatoland,” award-winning food journalist Barry Estabrook takes readers behind the scenes of tomato production in America — and you’ll never look at an impeccably smooth, evenly shaped and perfectly red supermarket tomato the same.


COVER: ANDREWS MCMEEL PUBLISHING

The following is an excerpt from Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2011). Of all the fruits and vegetables we eat, perhaps none suffers more at the hands of factory farming than the tomato. Tomatoland traces the beloved fruit from its wild origins in Peru to its present-day incarnation in the $5 billion fresh tomato industry based in Florida. Fast-paced and suspenseful, this outstanding exposé of modern agribusiness shows the high price we pay as a society when we disregard sustainability in our food system. This excerpt is from the Introduction, “On the Tomato Trail.” 

My obituary’s headline would have read, “Food Writer Killed by Flying Tomato.”

On a visit to my parents’ condominium in Naples, Fla., I was mindlessly driving along the flat, straight pavement of I-75, when I came up behind one of those gravel trucks that seem to be everywhere in southwest Florida’s rush to convert pine woods and cypress stands into gated communities and shopping malls. But as I drew closer, I saw that the tractor trailer was top-heavy with what seemed to be green Granny Smith apples. When I pulled out to pass, three of them sailed off the truck, narrowly missing my windshield.

Chastened, I eased back into my lane and let the truck get several car lengths ahead. Every time it hit the slightest bump, more of those orbs would tumble off. At the first stoplight, I got a closer look. The shoulder of the road was littered with green tomatoes so plasticine and so identical they could have been stamped out by a machine. Most looked smooth and unblemished. A few had cracks in their skins. Not one was smashed. A 10-foot drop followed by a 60-mile-per-hour impact with pavement is no big deal to a modern, agribusiness tomato.

If you have ever eaten a fresh tomato from a grocery store or restaurant, chances are good that you have eaten a tomato much like the ones aboard that truck. Although tomatoes are farmed commercially in about 20 states, Florida alone accounts for one-third of the fresh tomatoes raised in the United States, and from October to June, virtually all of the fresh-market, field-grown tomatoes in the country come from the Sunshine State, which ships more than 1 billion pounds to the United States, Canada and other countries every year. It takes a tough tomato to stand up to the indignity of such industrial-scale farming, so most Florida tomatoes are bred for hardness, picked when still firm and green (the merest trace of pink is taboo), and artificially gassed with ethylene in warehouses until they acquire the rosy red skin tones of a ripe tomato.

Beauty, in this case, is only skin deep. According to figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans bought $5 billion worth of perfectly round, perfectly red, and, in the opinion of many consumers, perfectly tasteless commercially grown fresh tomatoes in 2009 — our second most popular vegetable behind lettuce. We buy winter tomatoes, but that doesn’t mean we like them. In survey after survey, fresh tomatoes fall at or near the bottom in rankings of consumer satisfaction. No one will ever be able to duplicate the flavor of garden-grown fruits and vegetables at the supermarket (or even the farmers market), but there’s a reason you don’t hear consumers bemoaning the taste of supermarket cabbages, onions or potatoes. Of all the fruits and vegetables we eat, none suffers at the hands of factory farming more than a tomato grown in the wintertime fields of Florida.

wayne hile
12/1/2011 7:23:43 PM

Seriously, am I the only person who has read page 5 of 6 of this article?!?!?!?!?!? Have we actually come to that point? Where the poor quality of taste and nutrition of a @#!$%&* tomato warrants more "comments" than the fact that human SLAVERY is taking place under our very noses?


juanita sullivan
10/11/2011 4:59:57 PM

Thanks for this great article! So much I didn't know about tomatos and I won't be buying any more for sure from the grocery store. I live in Canada now but was raised in Florida and the remark about humidity was right on.


randy baker
9/29/2011 6:46:10 AM

The difference between a store bought tomato and a nice homegrown tomato is everything. It's no mystery why the quest for the real tomato flavor propels more people to DIY gardening than anything else ... I bring my extra homegrown tomatoes to an assisted living facility and see people weep for the simple joy of tasting real food that reminds them of their youth. I tell people all the time to boycott store tomatoes ... even the expensive heirloom varieties at the chi chi stores. Good tomatoes are a birthright but you have to work for them ... but not that hard! The secret to growing consistently good tomatoes? Buy several varieties - seeds or starts. See what grows well for you and stick with that. Rotate your growing space. But also, and best of all in terms of strategies is compost the rotten and damaged fruit and chose a plot to throw a couple of shovelfuls of your compost on and see what sprouts. Likely you'll get a derivative of a hybrid variety and that's perfect cause you're back to basics. Those are the survivors and the ones you were meant to grow. The tomato seeds survive even the hottest composting and those that flourish are "yours". Somehow I ended up with a variety that grow indeterminate but looks like a romas with cute green shoulders. I have never seen this variety listed for sale and but they grows wild in my yard and produce the best eating tomatoes imaginable. Salsa, sauces, soup ... sliced all perfect. And you I don't stake them or baby them with fancy fertilizers save for compost. They ramble and grow like weeds. They are the best thing in my yard.


t brandt
9/22/2011 7:22:47 PM

You're quite right. We've been selecting favorable genes ever since the first caveman mated only the most docile captive wolf pups. Toughed skinned tomatoes help keep wastage down and costs low. Taste for tomatoes is acquired, so that argument holds no water at all. and if modern tomatoes have only 2/3rd the vitamins as old ones, then eat 1 1/3 to make up the difference. I love my home-grown fruits-- for those 3 or 4 weeks of the year, then it's nice to have a tomato of consistent quality and low cost from the store any time I need it. Surely there are bigger problems in the world to complain about. Natural is nice- if you like dying in childbirth 1 out of 4 times, or of childhood diseases we no longer worry about. Maybe we should just accept some of the minor downside to hi tech in trade-off for the major good it does most of the time.


rc xb
9/18/2011 9:08:10 PM

I'm afraid I don't scare easily, no matter how hard everyone tries to make food into a bogey man. As far as nutrition, replacing a few vitamins and minerals is a trivial as a daily vitamin supplament. But I'm not recomending that, because not a single study has shown any benefits of taking supplaments for an otherwise healthy individual, since humans naturally select a good balance of needed vitamins if a variety of foods are available. As for taste, yes supermarket tomatoes are hard and bland. However, it's not as if natural tomatoes are candy, they're softer and have a stronger taste, but I'd never eat one like an apple (salt helps). I haven't felt the need to grow my own in years, because the cheap ones work just fine on sandwiches and burgers, after they've had a few days to ripen on the counter and all the green is gone. Sure, fresh would be marginally better, but I'm betting tomatoes, like most vegitables, just won't be prized for their taste no matter how ripe and natural.


alisonrrogers
9/9/2011 4:54:30 PM

Me too! This issue deserves the attention it's getting.


jennifer kongs
9/9/2011 4:52:06 PM

Can't wait to read this book - it comes highly recommended!






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