Forewarning: If you ever want to buy a grocery store tomato again, you should not read this review. Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook is a contrasting story of McMansions and crumbling shacks, the bright red, beauty pageant-worthy orbs on your $8 Angus burger versus the fruit sprayed with so many toxic chemicals they have caused serious birth defects and disfigurements, and farming empires worth millions supported by human trafficking. (Says Estabrook: “If you have ever eaten a tomato during the winter months, you have eaten a fruit picked by a slave.”)
If you are hoping this is yet another story about the horrors of what we eat and how it affects us (as in, our health, our daily lives, what we feed our children), it thankfully is not. For this is not a self-centric story about us, but a story about those who suffer because of our need for a perfectly blemish-free, tasteless tomato on our shiny office cafeteria Cobb salads, sandwiched between convenient fast food burgers and lining our our well-stocked grocery stores year round. Turn the page for more.
The genesis of the book was an article that Estabrook wrote for Gourmet magazine a few years ago investigating human trafficking in the Florida tomato farming industry, and so it focuses on exactly that — Florida's fallen tomato farming industry supplies 90% of the fresh tomatoes sold in the U.S. (California is the leader in canned tomato farming, which as Estabrook tells us, is an entirely different fruit — literally).
He makes no excuses for attacking both the farm owners and the state of Florida, which he calls “the Pesticide State.” It is “one of the worst places you could choose to grow tomatoes commercially,” he says in a chapter detailing the nutrient-less sand and humidity of the region that means imminent death to the average backyard tomato (hence all the pesticides and chemicals). But first, he visits UC Davis to learn about tomato heritage and the varieties, outlines the evolution of tomato growing in Florida, and sets the scene for our insatiable desire for the fruit (it is the second most popular produce item in the U.S.).
And then he gets to the really rotten side of the story: The human price of those vine-ripe, tasteless tomatoes that most of us have probably unknowingly allowed to proliferate by spending our dollars at a restaurant, fast food joint or grocery store that serves Florida-grown tomatoes.
There are stories of severe disfigurement (children born without limbs), shocking quantities of often toxic pesticides regularly used (Estabrook says California and Florida grow roughly the same number of tomatoes but Florida uses eight time as many insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides — nearly eight million pounds in 2006), horrific abuses of state and Federal laws (workers forced to work among widely known severely toxic chemicals without protective gear), and worse, state regulators supposedly looking the other way. But it is the human trafficking — outright slavery — side of the story that is the hardest to digest.
Perhaps it is partly our modern appetite for shock-value news stories that makes Tomatoland a quick read despite Estabrook's detailed, and very good, investigative reporting. Sure, we don't get the flip side of the story from the corporate tomato farmers, but that's OK here. They can write their own rebuttal. This is the sort of book you want — need — to finish in one or two servings as it will forever change the way you look at that $6 burger.