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Harvest of Pain 

The long, hard journey from Central Valley seed to caesar salad

Thursday, Nov 27 2003
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Photos by Ted Soqui

I’m staring at my Cheesecake Factory caesar salad, disconcerted. It’s not the surroundings. This Cheesecake Factory in Beverly Hills seems like a fine place. The waiters are cheery, efficient and well-scrubbed. The dozens of diners around me tucking into their late-afternoon lunches seem happy. I like caesar salad. This one looks good.

Nor is it the salad itself that is throwing me off. Well, not exactly. It’s what I know about what went into getting this pile of chopped romaine leaves and hearts here in front of me. By laying tooth to this salad, I will become the final link in a complex chain of events that, among other things, is helping to swell the fortunes of a Mexican billionaire, damage Alejandro Garcia’s back, and leach toxins into California drinking-water wells.

While I’m sitting here, I can’t help but think how Abelardo Romo is into his eighth hour of stooping over and hacking away at lettuce heads in a pesticide-drenched field near Salinas. Soon, he’ll head back to his steel cot in a spartan labor camp hundreds of miles from his wife and children. Around the same time, Israel Gomez Ruiz will be returning to his tiny, unheated shack in a muddy field outside of Gilroy — if he’s found work in the fields at all today.

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A nice caesar is, no doubt, easier on both your body and the planet than a hamburger. That’s part of the reason we Americans are eating more fresh fruits and vegetables than ever before; in particular, we are eating more salads in restaurants than at any time in history. Nonetheless, the process by which just about any chain restaurant’s plate of greens is created, from seed to salad, entails startling human and environmental costs. It comprises sleek corporate offices and Third World–style shantytowns, marries the production of life-giving foods with the dispersion of lethal toxins, and combines the latest technologies of the 21st century with working conditions more like those of the 19th. All of that keeps the lettuce cheap — but at a cost that is not reflected in the price on the restaurant’s menu.

I chose the Calabasas-based Cheesecake Factory as an example to illustrate how the process works, but I emphasize that it’s just an example. I’m not focusing on it because the romaine lettuce in its caesar salads is produced under conditions that are particularly bad, or particularly good, nor because its salads are any worse or better than any other chain I might have picked. I’m focusing on it not because there is anything especially unusual about its supply chain, but because it is so typical.

 

Nearly half of the world’s romaine salads originate in a small, bare building crammed with sleek high-tech equipment on the outskirts of Gilroy, the California farming town best known for its garlic. This is the biotech research laboratory of Central Valley Seeds Inc. (CVS). Founder Tony Avila estimates that 45 percent of all romaine grown on the planet sprouts from CVS seeds.

Like so many other things in our increasingly fragmented world, seed production has developed into its own specialty, pursued by businesses growing fruits and vegetables that are not meant to be eaten but rather to yield seeds genetically tailored to fit the demands of growers. It’s a small but significant part of the agricultural industry: In California alone, farmers bought nearly $1 billion worth of seeds in 2001.

Avila, a fleshy, middle-aged man with a thick head of wavy salt-and-pepper hair, is passionate about lettuce. “Look at those head sizes!” he marvels, bending over in the small experimental growing patch outside the lab to squeeze a husky, basketball-size head of romaine like a proud uncle greeting a favorite nephew. “Beautiful!”

His company is a small player in the overall seed business but a big one in its leafy niche. “We compete against the huge conglomerates,” says Avila with satisfaction. “But they can’t touch us in lettuce.”

Avila’s staff spends months, often years, cross-breeding different strains of romaine with one another and with other varieties of lettuce — iceberg, red leaf, green leaf, butter — to develop new strains that look better, or are more disease resistant, or that can flourish in the precise types of soil and climatic conditions found in his customers’ growing areas. Avila’s lab technicians mark and track the DNA of varieties with desirable qualities to expedite the passage of favorable genes into new hybrids, and run biochemical analyses to determine, say, the exact amount by which a new head’s sugar level has been elevated. Using these methods, CVS has developed romaine heads that are especially dark green, heads that are especially yellowish (very popular in Chile), heads with especially large hearts, and heads with no hearts — just extra-thick leaves, “perfect for hamburgers,” says Avila.

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