That pretty little red orb hides a lot of dirty secrets. I just finished reading Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland: How Modern Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, and am profoundly unsettled. If you’ve bought a supermarket tomato in the dead of winter, odds are that it came from Florida. (But don’t worry — if it came from Mexico, it has its own host of problems.) The conditions that produced it are so appalling that I am never buying another out of state, out of season tomato. Here’s why.
- They’re tasteless. Pretty and red, yes. But also mealy with, at most, a slight watery tartness to them. Compared to the full glory of a summer ripened tomato that explodes with flavor and juice when you bite, winter tomatoes are so disappointing that they hardly merit the name. Why are they tasteless? Tomatoes that have been bred for travel are picked green and gassed with ethylene until they turn a beautiful, uniform red. They are bred for toughness and uniformity, not taste. Apparently you can drop kick one across the room without bruising one. You could probably give someone a concussion if you lobbed one of these.
- They are less nutritious. Not just tomatoes, but many conventionally grown crops have lower vitamin levels than they used to 50 years ago — due to both selective breeding and the heavy use of chemicals. Modern tomatoes, which have been bred for looks and hardiness, have lost iron, calcium, and vitamin A — but have 14 times more sodium.
- Florida tomatoes are doused with five times as much fungicide and six times as much pesticide as California tomatoes. Florida is a crappy place to grow tomatoes, yet it produces 1/3 of all tomatoes available in the US, and most of the off-season ones. Tomatoes like warm, fairly dry weather. Florida is warm, but it’s also humid. The soil is essentially sand, so nutrition has to be pumped in, and the humidity gives rise to lots of nematodes, insects, and weeds that aren’t killed off every winter. Because it’s so far from being an ideal place to grow tomatoes, farmers end up spraying their crops with some of the deadliest pesticides known to man — and lots of them.
- They travel far. There are so many good reasons to buy local: you’re supporting your local economy, you get to develop relationships with your local growers, you don’t rack up the carbon footprint of food from far away, and locally grown food generally tastes better. Whether your winter tomatoes are coming from Canadian hothouses, Mexican hydroponic plantations, or Floridan fields, they’re using up a lot of oil to get to you. And they don’t even taste good.
- If your winter tomato comes from Florida, it leaves behind a long trail of human rights abuses. Being a farm laborer is crappy wherever you are in this country, but Florida seems to be one of the worst places, with the fewest protections and support for laborers. In some cases, the tomato industry has become outright slavery. The heavy and poorly regulated use of pesticides on tomato fields has caused chronic illness and debilitating birth defects among the children of laborers.
- If your winter tomato comes from Mexico, you might want to read this article on how organic tomatoes raised for export in Mexico are sucking wells dry and preventing small farmers from raising the crops they need in order to eat. Sound familiar? Oh yeah, similar story with bananas, coffee, chocolate…
- It’s not hard to grow or preserve your bounty of summer tomatoes. My mom literally just sticks extra tomatoes in the freezer. Freezing does change the texture, but in the winter, tomatoes go into soups and sauces and recipes that don’t require the crispness of fresh tomatoes. I also freezer-canned a few jars of roasted tomato and garlic sauce (definitely should have made more of that), and of course, you can do real water bath or pressure canning.
- There’s a steep price for being able to eat the same foods year round. The cost is tallied in oil, pesticides, social justice, and taste. Is it really worth it for that bland supermarket tomato?
Unfortunately, it’s not just about refusing to buy tomatoes in the winter. Restaurants and fast food joints continue to use them, and I admit that one of my occasional indulgences is an In-N-Out grilled cheese (animal style!), with its requisite slice of tomato. Now that I know the story behind the tomato in my sandwich, will I stop going? Request that they leave it out? I haven’t decided yet.
If you’re interested in the story of tomatoes, I suggest you check out Tomatoland for yourself. Prepare to be appalled.
Do you buy tomatoes in the winter? Will you stop?
Photo by La Grande Farmers’ Market