Thursday, September 8, 2011

The (Tomato) Jungle

About a century ago Upton Sinclair wrote a novel called The Jungle which exposed the labor abuses in the meatpacking industry. Unfortunately for Sinclair, the labor issues were largely ignored while more attention was given to the unsanitary conditions of meat (as were also exposed in the book) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was created. But it inspired some to begin confronting the situation where immigrants were literally worked to death in filthy and slave-like conditions. And Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook (this one is NOT a novel) might have the potential to do the same thing in the Florida tomato industry.

Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring FruitIn the first chapter Estabrook describes the lousy produce which ends up on grocery store shelves looking like tomatoes. Bred to endure rough shipping conditions and picked while still green, they are gassed with ethylene to make them turn red but generally lack any flavor. But after this short introduction to the tomato itself, Estabrook spends most of the book describing the labor to harvest these green tomatoes. From the harsh chemicals needed to grow them in Florida (which has poor soil and is too humid for tomatoes) and which cause untold health problems to workers (and sometimes horrific birth defects), to the slave-like conditions those workers endure (and in some cases it is outright slavery!), it becomes more of an exposé on the labor abuses of big agriculture.

While I wholeheartedly endorse the labor reforms this book should initiate, it wasn't as interesting to read as I had hoped based on the publicity and it left too many questions hanging. It seems that this book is only about tomatoes from Florida, while California (where I live), Mexico, and Canada (greenhouses and hydroponics) are only briefly mentioned. (It sounds like California mainly provides for the canned tomato market but why no information?) So apparently, he is only talking about tomatoes sold on the East Coast in winter? Perhaps tomatoes sold in other seasons are grown locally, and maybe those taste better? He eventually gets back to discussing tomato genetics and breeding near the end, but it's too disconnected and confusing by that point.

(Now wait a minute! I don't even like tomatoes, so why would I read a book about them? Well, it sounded interesting, and I do like to grow them. I wish I liked them! But Jamie likes them and I guess that's a good enough excuse for me to plant them.)

Better editing might have helped but it reads more like a very lengthy NY Times article. He recounts so many happy stories by the end that it gives the impression that conditions have already changed, or are at least on the right track, thus undermining his call for action. I found one of his stories particularly strange, where he tells how government subsidized housing is being provided at such a low cost to migrant workers that it could be foreclosed any day, and then he mentions all the "rules" the tenants are required to abide and calls them "paternalistic" and "authoritarian," even though he reports that the situation works for everyone!?! Overall, the book was not "great" or even "good," but merely "okay." But it's still an important message, so I'll blog about it.

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