Tomatoland: From Harvest of Shame to Harvest of Hope

The third edition of Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook called out to me for many reasons. My research involved tomatoes more than any other food. I live 50 miles from Immokalee (pronounced like broccoli). I listened to an impassioned speech by a Coalition of Immokalee Workers at a local meeting. The planets aligned inside my mind as I read this book. Farmworker inequity does not enter our minds as we bite into a fruit or vegetable. No fresh item elicits more derision in the matter of quality as the tomato. Too often flavor and appearance conflict with each other in fresh foods from plants. Fresh produce requires logistical attention to arrive at the market in good shape. The story of the tomato from field to market fascinates us as it disturbs us. Bear in mind, a tomato is a fruit and not a vegetable. Again, I respond to the author’s words as presented in bold:

“if gassed with ethylene, tomatoes could be picked before they were fully ripened and therefore would withstand handling better than their nongassed counterparts” (p. 9) Why do the tomatoes we buy in the supermarket not taste like a “real tomato?” Estabrook presents one version. I observed a somewhat different one. Plants respond to hormones as do humans. Plant and animal hormones are not the same. Ethylene is a gaseous hormone produced by tomatoes to trigger ripening. The tomato will produce ethylene on its own given time. Impatient tomato handlers know that ripening happens in a short period. By the time a ripening tomato travels across country, it might arrive overripe and mushy. One bad tomato can spoil the whole bunch as it spews copious amounts of ethylene. This ethylene accelerates ripening of its neighbors.

Commercial handlers prefer ‘mature green’ tomatoes. There are four stages of mature greens. Mature greens do not produce ethylene on their own. Later stages respond to artificial generation of ethylene in a special chamber. Shipment of mature greens to market allows handlers to control the ripening process. ‘Gas-ripe’ fruit turn red and soften over time. In the trade ‘vine ripe’ fruit start generating ethylene while still attached to the plant. Their color at harvest is almost all green with a blush of pink. Too much pink eliminates them from any shipment North. Vine ripes generate their own ethylene. They also ripen up to a nice red and an acceptable level of firmness as they travel to their destination. Flavor is not a consideration.

“But as far back as the 1920s food scientists had determined that no tomato artificially ripened with ethylene could ever have the taste and texture equal to one ripened naturally.” (pp27-28) The author starts to get personal when he writes about food scientists. I could not find his reference. Who were these food scientists? The phrase “could ever have” is not a scientific statement. Science and technology have changed since the 1920s. Many wonders of technology unthinkable in the 1920s are now necessities in the 2020s. Think cell phones, microwavable foods, autonomous vehicles, jetpacks. And what does it mean to ripen naturally? The vine ripes described above receive no artificial ethylene. Yet, they do not ripen to full flavor and texture of a backyard tomato at its prime. Even Amazon could not ship that prize, backyard tomato to a friend 1000 miles away. By arrival time it would be past its prime!   

Postharvest physiologists thought they had the solution to the perfect tomato—poylgalacturonase (PG). A friend and mentor of mine, Dr. Barry McGlasson, was at the forefront of this idea. What if we could slow softening of the tomato until it became ripe and at peak flavor? Then we could turn on the gene to soften the tomato by activating PG, the responsible enzyme. It was a brilliant concept, but it did not work. Turns out that the tomato has other softening enzymes that kick in when PG doesn’t show up. Also, components of superior flavor increase to undesirable levels as the fruit continues to ripen. Peak flavor in a tomato does not stick around very long. The food scientists proclaiming artificial ripening inferior to natural ripening are still right. But there is always tomorrow. 

“In terms of raw quantities, Florida is awash in toxic chemicals, even compared to other states where agriculture is a lynchpin of the economy.” (pp 40-41) Estabrook points out that Florida suffers in many ways as a growing area. The soils lack fertility. Pest pressures are high. Temperatures rise above optimal growth conditions in the summer. California enjoys many advantages. Florida succeeds as a tomato state by outcompeting every other state in the winter. Mexico becomes its primary competitor. My family moved to Florida after I retired. We understand why  chemicals are necessary to grow tomatoes here. Nematodes reign in Florida. We grew tomatoes and cucumbers in pots on our enclosed pool deck the first year we were here. It was not worth our effort to continue.

These toxic compounds are not a threat to consumers. They are a threat to pickers. The greatest danger comes from spraying in the fields when pickers are present. Pesticides pose only one of the many hazards to field workers in Florida. Immokalee represents the focal point of migrant worker abuse in the country. Food Chains highlighted these abuses with Immokalee the setting. Its current reputation overshadows the reason it became a magnet for migrant labor. Immokalee’s Fields of Hope describes the progression of migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, and Haiti. They flocked to the area for the availability of work. The series of injustices came later.

“Guarantee us a few basic rights and give us one penny more per pound for the tomatoes we pick. A penny per pound would be a pittance to a fast food behemoth like McDonald’s, which has annual revenues of over $22 billion.” (p. 109) The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) succeeded in calling attention to these problems. The penny-per-pound initiative captured the imagination of the nation. Estabrook proclaims that it raises the prospect of a tomato picker from poverty to a paltry, living wage. This third edition emphasizes great progress in labor relations since his first edition. The CIW representative I heard spoke in Spanish accompanied by an English interpreter. Very impressive. Very moving. This organization provides a template for pay equity on farms across the country.

“When an abusive boss was fired, the council made certain a representative of the grower would personally tell the workers who had filed the grievances that the abuser was gone for good and emphasize that they were glad the workers were making complaints.” (p. 155) The author documents the tragedy of the past and hope for the future in Immokalee. Can this model carry over to areas without intense publicity? Many growing areas were not as bad as Immokalee past but have not improved to Immokalee present. We need treat our agriculture workers better. Improving food chains could result in higher prices for fresh produce. Higher prices will limit access to fresh fruits and vegetables for the poor. Problems with food distribution are complex. One positive change creates other problems down the chain. The idea that reinventing the “food system” will solve all problems from field to market is naïve.  

Tee shirt proclaiming "I Love Fresh Tomato Flavor"
Our tomato team tee-shirts.

“Tasti-Lee is not perfect. Its fruits are smaller than commercial growers like. But it’s as close as Scott had ever come to finding Tomatoland’s Holy Grail—a fruit thick skinned enough to shrug off the insults of modern agribusiness, but still tender at heart and tasting like a tomato should.” (p. 181) It was my good fortune and pleasure to conduct research with Dr. Jay Scott. Jay was the finest plant breeder I have ever known. Several times each winter we loaded up the van in Athens for a trip down to Bradenton. My students and I got up early the next morning to harvest our tomato samples under Jay’s careful guidance. Then we would return to Athens.

We conducted the acceptability tests the next day. One consumer panelist could not believe the great taste of one of Jay’s varieties in a December test. Consumers do not understand how delicate a fresh tomato is when exposed to stress on its way to market. Distributors ignore flavor in the tomatoes if they ship as long as they continue to make money. This disconnect is one reason that we do not have flavorful tomatoes in the supermarket.

“But the cardinal rule of commercial tomato production stood in the way of getting a better variety into the market. Yield trumped all else. Klee succeeded in producing a flavorful tomato that had 90 percent of the traits sought by growers, but that wasn’t good enough. (p. 192) Dr. Harry Klee was another research collaborator. We did not work as well together. Klee was a noted molecular biologist working at Monsanto. He relocated to the University of Florida. His goal was to develop a great tasting tomato without the use of genetic engineering. Nothing we worked on together bore fruit. I realized as I read this book that we had different goals. He sought a variety that would appeal to foodies. I envisioned a fuller flavored alternative to the tasteless supermarket tomato. No wonder we failed in our quest! Neither one of us achieved what wished either then or since then. No one has tried harder than Jay Scott or Harry Klee. Delivering the perfect tomato to the public is difficult.

Bottom line. What a delightful and fascinating book! Estabrook paints a dismal picture of worker abuse. He follows that picture with one of hope. Is his vision one that applies only to a corner in the state of Florida? Or will it take root across the country? Only time will tell. Along the way the author refreshed my memory on the years I toiled in tomato research. I am grateful to all the students who worked with me as well as Drs. Scott, Klee, and Elizabeth Baldwin. I will share more of these wonderful experiences next week on this site.

Next week: What I learned about tomatoes during my research career

2 thoughts on “Tomatoland: From Harvest of Shame to Harvest of Hope

  1. Why do the tomatoes we buy in the supermarket not taste like a “real tomato?”

    The best answer to this question came from a food science journal that I read sitting on the floor of the library where my mother worked as I waited for her to finish so I could hitch a ride home. The study was done out of a mid west agricultural university and involved a taste test for the “best” tomato. Tasters were recruited from faculty and staff. Initially, results suggested that women preferred industrially grown and harvested tomatoes and men preferred vine ripened tomatoes. On further scrutiny, the researchers determined the women were clerical staff while the men were university instructors. The clerical workers had never tasted a vine ripened tomato. The men, who lived in more affluent households, ate the more expensive vie ripening tomatoes in season. OMG I said to myself. There was no difference! The men and women just liked what they were used to. It’s a simple as that! I have spent hours googling and searching online for this article but I’ve never been able to find a reference.

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