Nancy McKibben's Reviews > Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit

Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook
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bookshelves: food-and-cooking, reviewed

By Barry Estabrook

When heirloom tomatoes are perfectly juicy and in season, I eat them with cheese on toast every day. So I am a fan and I wanted to find out from Estabrook why winter tomatoes are so perfectly tasteless, and I did. But the book is about so much more than that. The author quotes U.S. attorney for Florida’s Middle District, Douglas Molloy, who says that Immokalee, Florida, the heart of America’s tomato industry, is “ground zero for modern-day slavery.”
He also says that any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave. ‘That’s not an assumption,’ he told me. ‘That is a fact.’
So a lot of the book is about the workers, chosen for their inability to speak English or Spanish (many are Hispanics who speak an Amerindian language) so that they can be more easily exploited by their crew bosses. They are exposed to chemicals and they live in squalid conditions as virtual (and even actual) slaves to their employers, who are conveniently insulated from prosecution by the middlemen in the industry, the crew bosses who hire and pay the workers.

So, we find out that tomato growing in Florida is a weird business all the way around. Florida is too humid to grow tomatoes well and its soil lacks nutrients, and the conditions that are bad for tomatoes are excellent for tomato-loving insects. Florida growers cope by blasting the bugs with pesticides and pumping the soil with fertilizers, neither of which are good for the laborers or the environment.

Estabrook uses both statistics and anecdotal evidence to take the reader through the intricacies of the Florida tomato industry. He interviews immigrant laborers (pretty much the only kind of laborers working on the tomato farms), tomato magnates, tomato researchers. He is the best kind of investigative reporter, and the book is never a diatribe, but a reasoned presentation of the problems, many of them severe, of the tomato industry in Florida.

And he certainly leaves the reader resolved that for the sake of the immigrant workers, she will never purchase another commercial tomato.

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Reading Progress

August 18, 2013 – Started Reading
August 18, 2013 – Finished Reading
August 21, 2013 – Shelved
August 21, 2013 – Shelved as: food-and-cooking
August 21, 2013 – Shelved as: reviewed

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