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What Price Do We Really Pay for Produce?

Aug 29, 2011 04:36PM ● By Megy Karydes

Barry Estabrook’s new book, Tomatoland, will make it hard to ever look at the popular fruit in the same way again. In this follow-up to his James Beard Award-winning article for Gourmet magazine, “Politics of the Plate: The Price of Tomatoes,” this investigative food journalist takes us on a journey to witness the true human and environmental cost of the $5 billion fresh tomato industry.

The fruit, often mistaken for a vegetable, inspires a cult-like devotion from food lovers on all continents. Many people love tomatoes and crave their tender, juicy taste year-round. It is our most popular garden “vegetable,” found in many household gardens during the summer months. Supermarkets cooperate by offering up a plentiful supply of perfectly shaped and colored specimens in their produce sections. Alas, looks can be deceiving.

Estabrook tells us that Florida is the biggest supplier of winter fresh tomatoes, and they are grown in pure sand. Because you can’t grow much of anything in sand, growers must create a special environment to combat the insect species and diseases that prey on tomatoes, and that includes blasting the plants with a cocktail of herbicides and pesticides.

The author follows the path of the average supermarket or restaurant tomato: plucked early from the vines by migrant laborers that ingest these toxic herbicides and pesticides, the mass-produced tomatoes are dumped into bins, placed onto pallets, and then shrink-wrapped and driven into a large tomato “gas chamber,” where they are exposed to ethylene vapor to create that radiant, red exterior buyers crave. Less than optimal growing conditions subtract from the natural taste, as well.

Estabrook shares the details of Hispanic laborers that reside and work in Immokalee, Florida, where pesticide exposure has led to birth defects and long-term medical ailments. In one chapter, he covers the Fair Food campaign, in which workers lobbied to receive a penny more per pound of tomatoes picked, an amount that would provide better wages to migrants. Only after public outcry and months of campaigning did the largest purchasers – McDonald’s, Burger Kind and Yum! Brands (which owns Taco Bell) – agree to the increase. With the notable exception of Whole Foods Market, he states, not a single supermarket chain has offered to participate.

The book offers a behind-the-scenes look at the tomato industry, and the picture it paints is not congruent with the happy-go-lucky visuals on the packaging we find in our local grocery stores. It’s a thought-provoking book and one worth reading if you enjoy eating food and care about where it comes from.

Megy Karydes is founder of World Shoppe, a fair trade importing business that works directly with artisans in South Africa and Kenya. To learn more, visit