Tomatoland. Human slavery in the tomato fields of Florida

How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit

The tomato on the cover of Tomatoland, written by Barry Estabrook, tells the whole story. It is lusciously red, spherical, and almost certainly tasteless. The book focuses on Florida, where tomatoes are grown for the northern market, especially in winter. The “soil” in Florida, if it can be called that, is primarily sand. There are many critters that like to munch on tomatoes as well as a fine assortment of diseases and weeds. Florida is, in fact, a terrible place to grow tomatoes – except for that northern market.

You can probably tell where this is going, right? Growing tomatoes in such an inhospitable area requires huge amounts of pesticides, fertilizers, and fungicides. The tomatoes are picked when hard and green then sprayed with ethylene to make them ripen. Tomatoes must meet the requirements of the dictatorial Florida Tomato Commission in order to be shipped out-of-state. The commission has decreed that tomatoes be unblemished and nearly perfectly spherical. Taste is not a requirement. As long as it looks pretty, a tomato can taste like cardboard – and often does. There’s a reason that a home-grown tomato tastes better than store-bought. Ripening by ethylene just isn’t the same as ripening in a field. Plus home-grown tomatoes tend to be heirlooms that while they may be lumpy and oddly shaped, haven’t had the taste bred out of them so they can be picked green then shipped long distances.

The story gets seriously nasty. Migrant workers who pick the tomatoes are among the most abused anywhere. Illegal exposure to pesticides causes birth defects and health problems. They are paid by the pound, often cheated on their meager wages, and forced to live in substandard housing (and pay exorbitant prices for doing so.) But that’s not the worst of it. Human slavery is.

US Attorney Douglas Malloy for Florida’s Middle District works on six to twelve human slavery cases at any given time. He says Immokalee “is ground zero for modern-day slavery” and if you’ve eaten a winter tomato purchased at a supermarket or on a fast food salad, then you have eaten fruit picked by a slave. “That’s not an assumption. That’s a fact.”

This is not faux slavery. This is workers held against their will, watched by armed thugs, forced to use dangerous pesticides, deliberately impoverished by forcing them to pay outrageous prices for shelter and food, and routinely beaten to a pulp if they try to escape or get sick.

The growers contract out harvesting to contractors. This allows them to have plausible deniability. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has a museum of modern-day slavery where you can view blood-stained shirts, manacles, wood-butted pistols used in beatings or shootings – all from the past decade or so.

CIW, aided by some Harvard Law graduates who came to help then stayed, have won some major legal victories and forced the growers to change. Christian and Mennonite organizations have provided child care, legal aid, and housing for workers. Hurricane Andrew destroyed hundreds of falling-apart trailer homes and decent housing has replaced them in some cases. So, real progress is being made. But it is slow, piecemeal, and for the most part, the problems remain.

A red juicy-looking tomato with little or no taste, what a perfect metaphor for industrialized farming, made worse by the huge amount of pesticides used and by the use of slaves. In the US. Today.

I think I’ll skip buying those perfect looking, tasteless supermarket tomatoes and wait for something misshapen and tasty grown by a local farmer. Chances are, he doesn’t use slaves.

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