According to figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans bought $5 billion worth of perfectly round, perfectly red, and, in the opinion of many consumers, perfectly tasteless fresh tomatoes in 2009—our second most popular vegetable behind lettuce. We buy winter tomatoes, but that doesn’t mean we like them. In survey after survey, fresh tomatoes fall at or near the bottom in rankings of consumer satisfaction. No one will ever be able to duplicate the flavor of garden-grown fruits and vegetables at the supermarket, but there’s a reason you don’t hear consumers bemoaning the taste of supermarket cabbages, onions, or potatoes. Of all the fruits and vegetables we eat, none suffers at the hands of factory farming more than a tomato grown in the wintertime fields of Florida.
Especially this bit:
Perhaps our taste buds are trying to send us a message. Today’s industrial tomatoes are as bereft of nutrition as they are of flavor. According to analyses conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, fresh tomatoes today have 30 percent less vitamin C, 30 percent less thiamin, 19 percent less niacin, and 62 percent less calcium than they did in the 1960s. But the modern tomato does shame its 1960s counterpart in one area: It contains fourteen times as much sodium.
Although Florida’s sandy soil makes for great beaches, it is devoid of plant nutrients. To get a successful crop, they pump the sand full of chemical fertilizers and can blast the plants with more than one hundred different herbicides and pesticides, including some of the most toxic in agribusiness’s arsenal.
Workers are exposed to these chemicals on a daily basis. The toll includes eye and respiratory ailments, exposure to known carcinogens, and babies born with horrendous birth defects. Not all the chemicals stay behind in the fields once the tomatoes are harvested. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has found residues of 35 pesticides on tomatoes destined for supermarkets.
An industrial tomato grower has no control over what he spends on fuel, fertilizer (which requires enormous quantities of natural gas in its manufacture), and pesticides, but he can control what he pays the men and women who plant, tend, and harvest his crops. This has put a steady downward pressure on the earnings of tomato workers. Those cheap tomatoes that fill produce sections 365 days a year, year in and year out, come at a tremendous human cost. Although there have been recent improvements, a person picking tomatoes receives the same basic rate of pay he received 30 years ago. Adjusted for inflation, a harvester’s wages have actually dropped by half over the same period. Florida tomato workers, mostly Hispanic migrants, toil without union protection and get neither overtime, benefits, nor medical insurance. They are denied basic legal rights that virtually all other laborers enjoy. Lacking their own vehicles, they have to live near the fields, often paying rural slumlords exorbitant rents to be crammed with 10 or a dozen other farmworkers in moldering trailers with neither heat nor air conditioning and which would be condemned outright in any other American jurisdiction.
Paid on a “piece” basis for every bushel-sized basket they gather, tomato pickers are lucky to earn 70 dollars on a good day. But good days are few. Workers can arrive at a field at the appointed time and wait for hours while fog clears or dew dries. If it rains, they don’t pick. If a field ripens more slowly than expected, too bad. And if there is a freeze as there was in 2010, weeks can go by without work and without a penny of income. Unable to pay rent, pickers slept in encampments in the woods. The owners had crop insurance and emergency government aid to offset their losses. The workers had nothing.
And extra especially this bit:
And conditions are even worse for some in Florida’s tomato industry. In the chilling words of Douglas Molloy, chief assistant United States attorney in Fort Myers, South Florida’s tomato fields are “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” Molloy is not talking about virtual slavery, or near slavery, or slaverylike conditions, but real slavery. In the last 15 years, Florida law enforcement officials have freed more than 1,000 men and women who had been held and forced to work against their will in the fields of Florida, and that represents only the tip of the iceberg. Most instances of slavery go unreported. Workers were “sold” to crew bosses to pay off bogus debts, beaten if they didn’t work, held in chains, pistol whipped, locked at night into shacks in chain-link enclosures patrolled by armed guards. Escapees who got caught were beaten or worse. Even though police have successfully prosecuted seven major slavery cases in the state in the last 15 years, those brought to justice were low-ranking contract field managers, themselves only one or two shaky rungs up the economic ladder from those they enslaved. The wealthy owners of the vast farms walked away scot-free. They expressed no public regrets, let alone outrage, that such conditions existed on operations they controlled. But we all share the blame. When I asked Molloy if it was safe to assume that a consumer who has eaten a fresh tomato from a grocery store, fast food restaurant, or food-service company in the winter has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave, he corrected my choice of words. “It’s not an assumption. It is a fact.”
After months of crisscrossing Florida, speaking with growers, trade association executives, owners of tomato-packing companies, lawyers, federal prosecutors, county sheriffs, university horticulturalists, plant breeders, farmworker advocates, soup kitchen managers, field workers, field crew leaders, fair housing advocates, one U. S. senator, and one Mexican peasant who came here seeking a better life for his family only to be held for two years as a slave, I began to see that the Florida tomato industry constitutes a parallel world unto itself, a place where many of the assumptions I had taken for granted about living in the United States are turned on their heads.
In this world, slavery is tolerated, or at best ignored. Labor protections for workers predate the Great Depression. Child labor and minimum wage laws are flouted. Basic antitrust measures do not apply. The most minimal housing standards are not enforced. Spanish is the lingua franca. It has its own banking system made up of storefront paycheck-cashing outfits that charge outrageous commissions to migrants who never stay in one place long enough to open bank accounts. Pesticides, so toxic to humans and so bad for the environment that they are banned outright for most crops, are routinely sprayed on virtually every Florida tomato field, and in too many cases, sprayed directly on workers, despite federally mandated periods when fields are supposed to remain empty after chemical application. All of this is happening in plain view, but out of sight, only a half-hour’s drive from one of the wealthiest areas in the United States with its estate homes, beachfront condominiums, and gated golf communities. Meanwhile, tomatoes, once one of the most alluring fruits in our culinary repertoire, have become hard green balls that can easily survive a fall onto an interstate highway. Gassed to an appealing red, they inspire gastronomic fantasies despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s a world we’ve all made, and one we can fix. Welcome to Tomatoland.
How did I not know about this?????