5/1/12 - modern tomatoes

In today's excerpt - most of the tomatoes we buy at supermarkets are a far cry from the sweet, tart, flavorful tomatoes that we grow in gardens or that were plentiful in stores decades ago:

"Although tomatoes are farmed commercially in about twenty states, Florida alone accounts for one-third of the fresh tomatoes raised in the United States, and from October to June, virtually all the fresh-market, field-grown tomatoes in the country come from the Sunshine State, which ships more than one billion pounds to the United States, Canada, and other countries every year. It takes a tough tomato to stand up to the indignity of such industrial-scale farming, so most Florida tomatoes are bred for hardness, picked when still firm and green (the merest trace of pink is taboo), and artificially gassed with ethylene in warehouses until they acquire the rosy-red skin tones of a ripe tomato.

"Beauty, in this case, is only skin deep. 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 commercially grown 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 (or even the farmers' market), 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.

"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, 100 grams of fresh tomato today has 30 percent less Vitamin C, 30 percent less thiamin, 19 percent less niacin, and 62 percent less calcium than it did in the 1960s. But the modern tomato does shame its 1960s counterpart in one area: It contains fourteen times as much sodium. ...

"If it were left up to the laws of botany and nature, Florida would be one of the last places in the world where tomatoes grow. Tomato production in the state has everything to do with marketing and nothing to do with biology. Florida is warm when the rest of the East and Midwest—within easy striking distance for a laden produce truck—is cold. But Florida is notoriously humid. Tomatoes' wild ancestors came from the coastal deserts of northern Peru and southern Ecuador, some of the driest places on earth. Taken to Spain, Italy, and southern France in the 1500s, they thrived in the Mediterranean's sunny, rainless summers. They flourish in the dry heat of California, home to the U.S. canned tomato industry, which is completely distinct from the fresh-market tomato industry.

"Canning tomatoes and fresh tomatoes may as well be apples and oranges. When forced to struggle in the wilting humidity of Florida, tomatoes become vulnerable to all manner of fungal diseases. Hordes of voracious hoppers, beetles, and worms chomp on their roots, stems, leaves, and fruit. And although Florida's sandy soil makes for great beaches, it is devoid of plant nutrients. Florida growers may as well be raising their plants in a sterile hydroponic medium. 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. 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 thirty-five pesticides on tomatoes destined for supermarket produce sections."


Barry Estabrook


Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit


Andrews McMeel Publishing


Copyright 2011, 2012 by Barry Estabrook


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