What it Takes to Get Cheap Tomatoes: Slavery

Too good to be good: perfect tomatoes cost more than any civilized nation should be prepared to pay. (Photo by Andy Wright/Flickr)

Like any compulsive gambler or addict faced with the accumulating consequences of destructive behavior, industrial agriculture responds by doubling down on the destruction; it responds, in other words, out of its illness and error, and will not change in any positive way until it hits bottom (although the behavior becomes much worse as the bottom nears). A new book illustrates this principle beautifully by focussing on a near-perfect embodiment of all that industrial agriculture has become — the tomato. In its losing struggle to provide perfect-looking, cheap tomatoes to every possible consumer, Big Ag has sunk to new lows of criminal behavior — slavery and genocide.

Really. As Barry Estabrook details in his book Tomatoland, tomato growers in the United States have resorted and are today resorting to enslaving workers to do the hot and nasty manual labor required to pick tomatoes. There is, alas, no machine that can lift this yoke from human shoulders and there are few humans in the world who will willingly do the work for what the growers want to pay.

Do you think it is over-reaching to describe the conditions in which many tomato pickers live as slavery? Douglas Molloy, the chief assistant U.S. attorney in Fort Myers, Fla., didn’t think so. When he prosecuted one firm for holding a Guatamalan worker, Lucas Mariano Domingo, for three years against his will — housing him in a box truck, charging him $5 from his meager earnings for a “shower” administered with cold water from a garden hose in the open air, threatening him with beatings if he tried to escape — Molloy called it “slavery, plain and simple.” In the past 15 years, Florida officials have freed more than 1,000 such tomato slaves, and have ignored the plight of many thousands more, who unlike the growers do not contribute to political campaigns.

Okay, “genocide” might be over-reaching (it’s my word choice, not Estabrook’s). But Estabrook reports that Florida tomato growers deliberately expose their forced laborers — male and female — to such frightful concentrations of chemicals that illness and hideous birth defects are common, as Tomatoland establishes with heart-wrenching detail. The chemicals are necessary, say the growers, because Florida’s soil is too sandy and devoid of nutrients (hence the need for synthetic fertilizer) , and its climate too warm and humid to provide any check on the insects and fungi that prey on tomatoes (hence the need for torrents of pesticides). So why do they insist on growing tomatoes in such a hostile place? Because it’s close to the best tomato markets, that’s why.

The markets also require perfectly colored, uniformly sized unblemished fruit (any mark and the finicky consumer will not buy it) that can stay that way no matter how far it is shipped. Tomatoland takes us back to the beginning of the industrial tomato and explains each step in the process that brought us a fruit that is perfect in appearance on the supermarket shelf, but virtually devoid of nutrition and taste.

I had one major worry about the book, based on some praise Estabrook receives from the reviewer in the Washington Post: “It’s easy to get enraged reading such stories. But Estabrook is careful to maintain his journalistic distance. The tomato growers and regulators, whom most readers will consider the bad guys, get to have their say.”

Excuse me? Journalistic distance? How much journalistic “distance” are we supposed to put between ourselves and the practice of slavery in the United States in the 21st Century? How much more difficult should it be to become “enraged reading such stories?” If only “most” readers will consider the slavers to be “bad guys,” what will the rest of the readers think? That they are merely misunderstood? That they can’t help it, it’s genetic?

If we were back in the 19th Century, would writers be obliged to explore the motivations and rationale of Simon Legree? To be fair? Is this the journalistic “distance” that requires news people, as one NPR reporter did the other day, to append any story that mentions global climate change with the observation that “of course, there might not be consensus on that!” What does 97 per cent of all climate scientists in the world constitute, if not a consensus? How long does journalistic “distance” require the informed to pander to the ignorant?

Fortunately, the facile paean to “distance” is the product of the Washington Post writer, not Estabrook. He does indeed report what the tomato growers spew by way of excuses, then eviscerates them and puts them under magnification. It’s not hard work. A principal industry spokeman told him we should give the tomato growers some slack because in any Chinese restaurant or big-city nail parlor you will find “human trafficking.” (Isn’t that a nice way of saying slavery? Sort of like calling the department in charge of firing people, “human resources.”)

By all means let the “bad guys” have their say; they are their own worst apologists. “What are we supposed to do?” they chant, invoking the anthem of the intellectually challenged. They are being squeezed by cheap foreign labor, by increased costs, by frosts and bugs and spores, they lament. How can they help but enslave people and destroy ecosystems? Estabrook covers this base as well, introducing us to people who have found ways to grow better tasting, more nutritious tomatoes while doing less harm, and have found consumers willing to pay the higher price.

And that consumer, of course, holds the key to the solution and is a primary source of the evil. As long as the American consumer values the appearance of quality more than quality itself, and chooses the cheapest product no matter what it takes to get that price down, the evil will continue to flourish. Consumers, like journalists, have become expert at maintaining their “distance” from the consequences of their choices, at remaining blind to, and thus untroubled by, the bestial things being done to bring them cheap tomatoes in winter.

Every one of them should be forced to read Barry Estabrook’s book before being permitted to buy another tomato. But of course it would be un-American to interfere with their freedoms.


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4 Responses to What it Takes to Get Cheap Tomatoes: Slavery

  1. Someone in Asia says:

    It used to be a simple, innocent source of pleasure to enjoy good food, but today it has become almost impossible just to EAT without feeling bad about being part of, contributing to and perpetuating an immoral system (and not being able to do much to change this system). Unless, of course, one chooses simply and deliberately to shut out from one’s mind all the facts spelled out by people like Estabrook. Or unless one grows one’s own food.

    • Tom Lewis says:

      There are other options in the US: farmers’ markets, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture — you subscribe to a season’s worth of produce) and individual farmers’ stands are sprouting everywhere. Almost anywhere now, with very little effort, time and extra money, one can eat ethically. As a bonus, you get nutrition.
      Is anything similar the case somewhere in Asia?

      • Someone in Asia says:

        Here in Singapore a few voices urging us to diminish our carbon footprint and work for greater food independence (most of Singapore’s food is imported) can be found. Check out lowcarbonsg(dot)com for example. My fear, though, is that they’re voices in the wilderness. There are practically no rural outskirts in Singapore at present; she’s so modernized that as far as I know everyone’s life here is inextricably jacked into the modern global industrial system. And there seems zero awareness of issues like peak oil; people seem to think that we just need to switch to low-carbon energy sources and otherwise everything can continue happily as per ‘normal’.

  2. landon says:

    love your stuff man keep it coming!