Tomatoes: The Unexpected Story
By: J. Marlando
While there are exceptions, I believe that it is safe to say that just about everyone loves tomatoes. We love them in our salads, we love them on our sandwiches, we sometimes eat them like we would an apple—there’s nothing I like better than a fresh tomato with a dash of salt. We also cook with tomatoes and make terrific sauces from tomatoes. Well, they not only taste good but they are healthy for us: Indeed, the Harvard University School of Health tells us that even eating pizza with tomato-paste is healthy so, in a way, a trip to Papa Johns Pizza or Pizza Hut or your neighborhood Pizza place is good for us. And eating whole tomatoes reduces the risk of prostate cancer up to 43%...Tomatoes are also a great source for lycopene. Lycopene helps women guard against cervical intra-epithelial neoplasia according to the University of Illinois; tomatoes are good for the eyes, they help to inhibit heart disease. All this, not to mention that tomatoes are high in Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium and potassium!
I remember when I was small child going to the corner grocery store with my mom or grandmother. In the summer they always had a big bin of vegetables and one especially for tomatoes. Those tomatoes did not look like the tomatoes we buy in supermarkets today, all fairly uniform in size and color. Back then the tomato bin held little tomatoes, middle sized tomatoes and great big tomatoes; some had a little unripen-green on them while others were darned near overly ripe. The famers delivered them in cardboard boxes or gunny sacks. Nevertheless, they were always very sweet and tasteful and the entire family loved them. In fact, my mom used to make spaghetti sauce that everyone raved about. With hindsight, I would have bottled the stuff and turned it into a product. Yes, it was really that good!
As you read further into this narrative I want you to keep all the good things I’ve been saying about tomatoes because they are all true…whoops…according to expert Barry Estabrook, the U.S. Department of Agriculture tells us that 100 grams of fresh tomato today has less than 30 percent less vitamin C, 30 percent less thimin, 19 percent less niacin, and 62 percent less calcium than it did in the 1960s…on the other hand, the tomato contains 14 times as much sodium.
With only this much said the rest of this article will strive to reveal how greed and inhumaneness runs much of agriculture today, especially the growers of commercial tomatoes—that lovely, red fruit that we American consumers spend around $5 billion a year on. So prepare to be shocked, perhaps even saddened by what I’m about to share with you about today’s flavorless, supermarket tomatoes or the tomatoes slice that is on your fast-food hamburger and/or stuffed in your submarine sandwich…the same tomatoes that, the odds are, you have sitting on your kitchen counter right now.
With this much said, let’s get started:
A Touch of History
The tomato is native to western South and Central America. It was unknown in Europe until Cortez returned from his exploration with seeds he’d collected from Montezuma’s gardens. They became popular as an ornamental plant because of their beautiful, round fruit…considered poisonous to eat. It is suggested by researchers that the first tomatoes taken to Europe were yellow because in Spain and Italy they were named, pomi d’oro, meaning “yellow apples.”
Some people began eating tomatoes by the early 1800s but by and large they maintained their reputation for being poisonous. Indeed, throughout the 1800s doctors were still warning people against eating the deadly tomato. Then, in the U.S. one Colonel Robert Gibbon Johnson returning to Salem, New Jersey from a trip abroad in 1908, had with him some nice, juicy tomatoes. Thereafter, He advocated growing them for over fifteen years when he finally tired of trying to convince everyone they were good to eat and, marched up the steps of the Salem courthouse, and daringly ate tomatoes in front of a crowd of around 2,000 people. Quite suddenly the American love for the red fruit began to unfold although it would be nearly a hundred years before the “poison” ban would be lifted for all Americans. Yet, the civilized world had finally caught up with what the indigenous people of South and Central America had known all along—the red fruit was good…and good to eat. Americans, however, were even centuries behind Italy since an early 16th century cookbook in Naplelese included tomatoes in some of their recipes.
Interesting enough everything about the tomato plant is, indeed, poisonous; except for the fruit.
Finally, let’s touch on the first connection to greed that the tomato had at least here in the United States: Back in 1887, U.S. tariff laws imposed a 10 % duty on vegetables but not on fruit. It began to be argued that since tomatoes were actually a fruit they shouldn’t be taxed. How did the law get around this obvious conclusion? The highest court in the nation, that’s right, the Supreme Court ruled that “botanically speaking, tomatoes are fruits of the vine.” But, the wise old, Justice Gray wrote: Tomatoes to common people were called vegetables and therefore tomatoes were vegetables and could/would be taxed. Makes you think about the entire justice system, does it not? After all, in this case, a rose by any other name was not a rose…it was what the Supreme Court said that it was.
The rest of course is history which brings us to our own times.
Tomatoes & Poison
Speaking of Florida tomatoes—which probably end up advertised as “good to eat” by your local supermarket—Barry Estabrook tells us that the Department of Agriculture has found “residues of thirty-five pesticides on tomatoes on their way to the supermarket produce section.” Indeed, Barry says, “To get a successful crop, they pump the soil 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. (California farms do not have Florida’s problems but according to the last report I read, the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DRP) said that more than 173 million pounds of pesticides “were reported” in 2010 which was an increase of around 15 million pounds over 2009. (I have not found a 2013 report).
We need to talk about farm workers for a moment. Yes, I am aware that this is a controversial subject these days but, let’s face it, most farm laborers are Mexican or Mexican/Indian…would you really want those jobs?
The average pay for a tomato field worker, if you adjust for inflation, earns about what he (or she) earned back in the 1980s; they have no union, no insurances, no health insurance and in some instances, no choice The chief assistant United States attorney reports that in Florida’s tomato fields is modern day slavery. That is, men and women sold to crew bosses and forced to work against their will. The workers are beaten if they become too sick to work, held in chains and watched by armed guards. In fact, corpses of murdered farm workers are not uncommon found floating in South Florida’s rivers and canals—And I remind you, we are not talking about the early 1800s…we are talking about the early 2000s. Mostly, however, the workers work because they must work to eat, to send their kids to school…when possible and buy a cerveza now and then.
We are told also that these field workers seldom escape working around pesticides “so toxic to human 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 directly on workers…”
We will return to the topic of pesticides and herbicides soon but first let’s talk about the tomatoes we buy and eat from our favorite supermarkets.
Green Tomato Blues
Especially over the winter months, the tomatoes you buy at the supermarket are picked when they are very hard and…green. The field workers are specifically told to look for a certain size, firmness and color Any sign of redness is a signal to reject the tomato or at least separate it from future human consumption. The green tomatoes will be “ripened” in transportation to markets all over the world. Between the picking and the delivery the (green) tomatoes are gassed with ethylene gas which is said to “ripen” the tomatoes and turn them that beautiful red that we see in supermarkets and take home for our families to eat. Ethylene gas is a naturally produced chemical (plant hormone) that is created during the ripening process but the tomatoes that are unnaturally gassed to make them ripen is made out of petroleum products not excluding crude oil. Incidentally, when this gas is applied to crops in the field it is not unusual for field workers to become dizzy and nauseous. Some workers have suffered actual asphyxia through the lack of oxygen.
For any reader who is interested the process is taking natural gas liquids or crude oil, mixing with heat, nitrogen and steam to replicate natural ethylene. Afterwards it is stored in metal containers until it is sprayed onto food crops “magically” turning unripen fruit into ripened fruit.
In any case, by the time that the tomatoes get to the store they are looking yummy and healthy-redThe problem is that because they have been artificially ripened they are, in a term, artificially ripe. Being artificially ripe, they are mealy and tasteless. Imagine this: some children have eaten tomatoes all their lives and never tasted that wonderful, healthy sweetness that tomatoes have from the vine. They also have never gotten all the benefits that tomatoes have to offer when in fact most people get most of their vitamins from tomato consumption. What does that tell you?
Do not begin protesting tomatoes in front of your supermarket—although I’ve thought about it—because tomatoes are not the only things that are ripened this way by the big boys in farming. Bananas, pears, mangoes, peaches, melons, citrus fruit and bean sprouts are also gassed to accelerate ripeness. Oh yes, the process is used on pineapple plants too to make sure the fruit is consistent in size. Don’t you just love the modern day systems and growers of food crops!
With all this in mind, we’ll return to pesticides and herbicides.
Big Business Farmers and Their Victims
Only the stupid and naïve believes that our legal system is not prejudice when it comes to the financially wealthy and powerful. The state of Florida, for example, has failed to find a connection between pesticide exposure and illness of farm workers in nearly 50 cases. One grower even admitted having his crews of workers labor in a pesticide-treated field during a quarantine period. As Estabrook states, “The state found regulatory violations in thirty-one instances but issued only two fines. No matter how you cut it, this implies good old boy politics in a most blatant demonstration of pomposity and prejudice.
And speaking of good old boy politics birth defects are well known among the field workers who are more often than not forced to work in chemically sprayed fields by employers and crew bosses. One such woman whose name is Francisca was working in a field that had been sprayed with over 30 chemicals during the growing season and became pregnant at this time. Her baby was born with a disease named tetra-amelia syndrome. As a result her loving, little infant was born with no arms and no legs. This was only one severe case of terrible birth defects endured by the farm workers, who are, in effect, considered mere robot-like workers to the owners of the tomato fields just as so many blacks were considered sub-human to the cotton farmers of the old South.
Just in case, you don’t feel the empathy and impact of this story, here is the photograph to touch your heart and stir your mind:
This result from working around pesticides that are teratogenic, that is, that can cause birth defects, occurs all over food crop fields especially during the picking season. It is not only birth defects, however, that working around those strong pesticides and herbicides cause—there are lung problems, blood problems, kidney problems and the list continues of health problems that can (and often do) result from being exposed to the toxics used in today’s world of raising food crops . And all, in many instances for below minimum wage and absolutely no health benefits.
One problem is and I am not at all being cute here, it’s simply isn’t politically correct these days to defend immigrant workers from south of our borders; it is far more politically correct to either create the pickers and field workers as an invisible population, not to be thought about—like coal miners were thought of until they finally unionized. (Being a person raised in coal camps, I know a lot about those dangers and conditions which, perhaps, is why I feel such empathy and compassion for today’s field workers), or condemn them for taking “American” jobs away and living off the government. The exaggerations of those workers “living off welfare” are too absurd to even consider. Farm workers are and always have been, in a term, a unique breed of hard working, poor folk. Poor folks, if you will, who simply need fair wages and safe conditions to work in.
The Good News & Bad News
There are government officials and others who are working toward assuring pickers and other field workers will receive at least minimum wage and protected by the owners and crew bosses from working in harm’s way of any pesticide/herbicide spraying.
As for unionization, not even the California based UFW (United Farm Workers of America) has been able to grow and maintain its strength against the political might of the growers. Even at the height of the UFW’s success, only around on 1/3rd of the vegetable industry was organized. The UFW needs reorganizing in any case so the workers themselves have the power to vote in their leaders. As I understand it, today the UFW’s brass has turned into a group of politicos doing little or nothing for the actual worker in the field beyond tossing out rhetoric from behind the walls of Sacramento’s elite.
So changes are needed in farming coast to coast. One problem with creating those challenges is that the very word “union” has become a “dirty word” for a lot of Americans who have been socially engineered to associate Unionization with communism or, in the least, socialism. This is certainly not the case today. Since, historically, the unions have been ultimate capitalistic societies and based on a philosophy of “business unionism." A real problem is that the Union is ever as self-serving as the companies they attempt to unionize. For example, where is the worker in the UFW? They’re out in the field working with virtually no power whatsoever in their own organization. None of this is the point, however. The point is that not laws or unions would be needed in labor if owners simply gave an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work. This takes us back to the sweat shops of the early 1900s, wherein woman, men and children toiled for pennies while creating wealth for those at the top. In this regard, I have said dozens of times that what we need is simply “compassionate capitalism” and all the inhumanity would simply go away.
As we go deeper into the second decade of the new millennium we are not improving in our humanism as a species much less as a specific culture. There are chemicals that the Food and Drug Administration permits that seems to be obviously not good for us…for example, there are nearly 3,000 food additives—some suspected of causing cancer, gallbladder ailments and hyperkinesia in children.—permitted in the food we eat. The American big farmers are now spraying over a billion pounds of chemicals on their crops each year. Dr. Landrigan wrote the following in a 1992 issue of the American Journal of Public Health:
Recent data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) showing that infants and young children are permitted to have dietary exposure to potentially carcinogenic and neurotoxic pesticides that exceed published standards by a factor of more than 1000.
And so, as it turns out, what I have written today is not only a serious problem for field workers and pickers but for all of us. The system needs to stop seeding the heartlessness of bureaucratic aloofness from humanness and stop supporting social-Darwinism as being the cornerstone of a strong capitalistic society. Remember as long as one field worker is in unnecessary danger, than so are all the rest of us. This is perhaps the real point to ponder.
Special note: When you can, grow your own Especially tomatoes are easy to grow. See recommended articles below reference book credits:
I have leaned heavily on Barry Estabrook’s heart-pounding book “Tomatoland.”
Estabrook, Barry * Tomatoland * Andrews McMeel Publishing
I highly recommend everyone reads this most important publication—it is easily available at Barnes & Noble and on Amazon.
Reiman, Jeffery * The Rich Get Richer, The Poor Get Prison * Pearson
Zinn, Howard * People’s History of the United States * Harper Perennial
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