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Perfectly red, unblemished winter tomatoes don’t just disappoint when it comes to taste and nutrition: they may be the product of modern-day slavery on industrial farms. Barry Estabrook’s exposé of abuses in the Florida tomato industry earned him a James Beard award. He joins us to discuss his work shining a light on our food chain.
- Barry Estabrook Author, "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit"
Read An Excerpt
Excerpted from Barry Estabrook’s “Tomatoland.” Copyright 2012 by Barry Estabrook. Reprinted here by permission of Andrews McMeel Publishing. All rights reserved:
MR. PAUL BROWNWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Paul Brown, sitting in for Kojo. And we're joined now by Barry Estabrook. He's a James Beard Award-winning writer and the author of "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit." You know, most of us are used to finding bright, red, perfect-looking tomatoes in the supermarket all year round. But before Barry Estabrook's expose, few people really knew what it took to bring us tomatoes in February.
MR. PAUL BROWNFlorida grows nearly all of our so-called winter tomatoes, and there's an arsenal of chemicals involved in making the sandy soil of Florida hospitable by killing pests, giving industrially grown tomatoes the bright red color that you've come to expect when you walk into the market. There's also an army of workers you should know who pick those tomatoes. Following those workers, Barry Estabrook has detailed some shocking abuses, including coerced labor and beatings that can only be described as modern day slavery.
MR. PAUL BROWNHe's shining a light on the tomato industry, and he's helped improve the lives of tomato pickers in Florida. And while the worst of the abuses are being addressed, this is all a reminder that all of the fresh food we buy has a human cost as well. If you're interested in your food supply -- where does your food come from? How is it produced? Who is bringing it you? What are the conditions? Is it safe? Is it sprayed with poisons?
MR. PAUL BROWNHow much of those pesticides and harsh chemicals are still on your fruits and vegetables when they reach you? What do you do personally about this? We'd love to hear from you. Here is the number, 1-800-433-8850. That's 1-800-433-8850. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can send us a tweet to @kojoshow. Barry Estabrook, welcome. Thanks for coming in.
MR. BARRY ESTABROOKWell, thanks for having me.
BROWNAnd, Barry, I understand you're accepting award -- an award this evening in Washington. Tell us a little about that.
ESTABROOKWell, it's a Farmworker Justice Award. It's -- I'm utterly flattered and humbled. These are the people who feed us. And I don't feel deserving, but it's a great honor.
BROWNYou know, I've got to tell you, Barry, when I was reading your book, one of the many, many things that I did not know, before I opened it, is that tomatoes, if you go back in time and go back through their ancestry, the tomato plant is a desert plant. It seems to be a plant that evolved to exist under incredibly harsh conditions with very little water.
BROWNAnd I have to say that that was possibly the biggest surprise I encountered, certainly in the early part of your book, when I thought about how fragile the tomato plants I know are and how, if I don't water them profusely every single day, they die. So how did we get from a plant that grew in the highlands of Peru or Colombia or was cultivated in Mexico hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago to a plant that can barely make it alone for a day without careful attention?
ESTABROOKWell, you know, you can still go to Peru and areas of South America and see the ancestors of all the tomatoes we eat today. And you're right. I encountered one on a road going up in the Andes. They looked to me like it was growing out of the rock. I could see no trace of soil.
ESTABROOKAnd there's this flourishing plant. They're very tiny tomatoes. They look like tomatoes, but they're about the size of a cranberry.
BROWNAre they red?
ESTABROOKThey are red.
ESTABROOKThere's only one member of the tomato family, the wild tomato family, that is red, and this happens to be the one. And it's the progenitor of all the tomatoes we have today. You mentioned Central America. Well, interestingly, even though the tomatoes grow wild in Peru and that area, they were domesticated in Southern Mexico. And no one knows what happened in between. There's a missing link because the people who lived in the areas where they are native did not domesticate them.
BROWNAnd they were thousands of miles away from where...
ESTABROOKThousands of miles away from where…
BROWN...the rest of the tomatoes turned up.
ESTABROOKRight, where it turned up. And then, you know, the Europeans took those tomatoes over to -- the Spanish did pretty soon -- pretty much as soon as they got here. But what we were left with was only 5 percent of the total tomato genome. That's what goes into every tomato you see today.
BROWNSo, basically, the tomatoes we buy, whether they are so-called heirloom tomatoes or beefsteak tomatoes at a grocery store or almost any other type, are really very inbred.
ESTABROOKYes. They're like really popular dog breeds or certain royal families.
BROWNAs a result, yeah. And they're fragile.
ESTABROOKRight. And they're big.
BROWNYeah. How did you become interested in this and start to research? And I know you're a gardener. You live in Vermont, and you like to garden. But to track the history of the tomato to the extent that you have, I must say, is very impressive, and I think not something that most of us would have thought of.
ESTABROOKWell, I am a tomato geek.
ESTABROOKBut, actually, the tomatoes started this fight. I was driving along an interstate highway in Florida several years ago...
BROWNOh, the story of the green tomatoes.
ESTABROOKThe green -- a truck filled with these green tomatoes. There wasn't a pink tomato or even a light green tomato. These were solid green tomatoes...
BROWNAnd this is how you open your book. It's a great story.
ESTABROOK…was in front of me, and it hit a bump.
ESTABROOKAnd three or four of these things flew off the truck on I-75, smacked the pavement, no harm done, bounced and rolled into -- onto the shoulder. And I kept thinking my own Brandywines at home where...
ESTABROOK...I consider myself victorious if I pick a few and get them up to the kitchen counter 25 yards away without them splitting.
BROWNSo what did you then do?
ESTABROOKWell, then I started looking into the -- you know, how you get from something that's so wonderful and tender and beautiful to something that can withstand an impact at 60 miles an hour and tastes like nothing. And that's a compliment. On a good day, it tastes like nothing.
ESTABROOKAnd, you know, that lead me to these horrific labor abuses. And I thought, you know, for what?
BROWNBarry, tell us what's going on in the actual production of tomatoes. We've heard this story now of a plant that grew under the harshest conditions, that's been domesticated, that's been inbred to the point where it not only tastes like nothing, but is fragile as a plant and yet produces a fruit that might as well be, you know, for all practical purposes, the way you describe it, a tennis ball. What does it take to produce this monumentally unsatisfying food, as you have described it to us?
ESTABROOKWell, first of all, it sounds counterintuitive. Florida is a bad place to grow tomatoes. In fact, you...
BROWNYou wouldn't think so. It's warm all year around.
ESTABROOKWarm. Sun -- it's the sunshine state. It should be called the humidity state, but I don't think the tourist board would like -- it doesn't quite have the same ring to it.
ESTABROOKAnd tomatoes hate humidity because of their ancestry. I mean, look where tomatoes grow great: Italy, California. Florida, they don't like it at all, and so the farmers have to, you know, launch what amounts to chemical warfare in order to successfully get a crop. They can apply up to 110 different pesticides to a field of tomatoes in a season in Florida.
BROWNYeah. You write in your book that there are some 27 different pests that can attack the tomato plants. You also say that a lot of what happened to bring the tomato industry to the fore in Florida had to do with distance and economics along the East Coast, that Florida was close enough to supply tomatoes to the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast. I want to come back to this labor question, though, in just a moment. But let's go to the phones for just minute with Mike in Gainesville, Va. Mike, you're on the air. And what's on your mind?
MIKEYes. Well, actually, it's two questions. One -- I was raised in South Jersey, so I'm just -- we had tomatoes in South Jersey in abundance. But one was that I don't know if I read it or I heard it that tomatoes or (unintelligible) tomatoes that we have are actually like Frankenfoods. You know, they've been spliced with fish -- with, like, fish genes. Or, I mean, I might be saying it, you know, wrong, but they're spliced with fish cells or fish genes so that the shell, you know, the tomato skin is a lot hardier and that...
BROWNTrue or false, Barry?
ESTABROOKWell, Mike, right now, interestingly, tomato was the first vegetable, or fruit, that was genetically modified. But, right now, there's no genetically modified tomatoes being grown commercially. They didn't take off. So these things were true, but they're things of the past.
MIKEOK. Now, my second was that aren't we getting winter tomatoes from the Central Valley region of California also during the winter 'cause I visited out there many times. And for some reason I thought they were also getting tomatoes from there, not just from Florida.
ESTABROOKThe tomatoes we get in the wintertime come from Florida and Mexico predominantly, with some hot house tomatoes growing in Canada and parts of Arizona. But the California tomato industry is a summertime industry.
ESTABROOKIt's too cloudy and cold in the Central Valley to get a winter crop.
MIKEOh, OK. OK. Well, that would be my question then. But the Frankenfood one was the one that was bothering me the most. It's one reason why I stay away from tomatoes, especially in the wintertime.
BROWNThanks very much, Amar, (sic) for calling. I appreciate hearing from you. Should we stay away from tomatoes, Barry?
ESTABROOKI love tomatoes. I love real tomatoes.
BROWNThe ones that you can grow.
ESTABROOKWell, my theory is the closer a tomato grows to your kitchen counter, the better it's going to be in all ways. I grow tomatoes. You know, I live in Vermont, but I can still successfully grow tomatoes. If I don't have any in the garden, I try to go to a farmer's market. If not the farmer's market, look for local tomatoes in the supermarket in the season. Eat a lot of tomatoes in season. I eat them to the point -- I make a tomato pig of myself, and I eat them to a point where I'm sick of them come the first frost.
BROWNBy the time the winter shows up. Hey, we've got Amar. I think -- I hope that I'm pronouncing your name correctly. Amar from Rockville, Md., who may have a question that's right along the line of this conversation. Amar, welcome. You're on the air.
AMARHi. I actually had two questions. One was you spoke of pesticides. So washing them is -- does it make them safe? And the second question was -- I live in Rockville, Md., which is near Washington, D.C., and how viable or convenient is it for me to grow my own tomatoes for a family of three? And we're a South Asian family, so, you know, there's a lot of tomatoes in our cooking.
BROWNWhat do you think, Barry? Can we get a little advice here?
ESTABROOKWell, you're lucky you live in Washington. I mean, you've got a nice warm growing season. Tomatoes like warmth. And, yes, plants -- go down and get a half a dozen plants. And if you have a sunny spot either in your yard or on your balcony, put in some tomatoes. They'll reward you many times over. They grow well. You don't have to feed them a lot of -- hit them with a lot of pesticides. And you'll get tomatoes that are unbelievably good for little expense and almost no work.
BROWNWhat type of soil do you recommend? And how big of a pot does one need for a plant?
ESTABROOKI would, you know, get any potting mix that you can get at the -- at any garden center.
ESTABROOKAnd, you know, a pot about as big around as a basketball hoop would accommodate...
BROWNYeah. Mm hmm. A lot of water? Do they require a lot of water?
ESTABROOKWell, you want to let them dry out between waterings. You don't want to soak them.
ESTABROOKOne of the quickest ways to kill a tomato plant is to keep its roots wet.
BROWNI ask partly because I've grown them a lot, and I had varying levels of success. I want to come back in just a moment. We want to take a brief break on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." We're talking with Barry Estabrook about tomatoes, growing them, producing them and eating them. We'll be right back.
BROWNAnd welcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Paul Brown, sitting in for Kojo today. And we have with us Barry Estabrook, James Beard Award-winning writer. He's the author of "Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit." And, Barry, you've been telling us how you can grow a more alluring tomato at home than would ever be produced perhaps in a field in Florida.
BROWNAnd as you have written in your book, there are still, today, tremendous labor abuses in the production of many agricultural products, including tomatoes, abuses that you would call enslavement. Tell us a little about what you discovered as you were researching "Tomatoland."
ESTABROOKWell, I don't mince words. This is...
BROWNThat's for sure.
ESTABROOKThis is slavery. It's not -- it's -- you know, don't -- it's not human trafficking. It's abject slavery. I'll give you a couple of quick examples. These are all in court documents, people being bought and sold and bargained for along the side of the road. You can get a slave for $500 today. People being chained up at night, shackled in chains, to keep them from running away, people being beaten day in and day out for not working hard enough, and, of course, you get no pay. That's slavery. That's 1850.
BROWNHow did you get close enough to people in these circumstances to document this and see it without getting hurt or killed yourself?
ESTABROOKWell, two things. One is the law enforcement people in Southwestern Florida, the U.S. attorney and the police hate this crime. And they were extremely willing to take me in and provide me with the legal documentation and that help. And the other thing is a very small group -- it started out as a small group -- of workers in the town of Immokalee, which is a migrant labor town in Southern Florida, started an organization a few years ago called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to combat this type of thing. And they were my guides to the -- you know, the worker side of the issue.
BROWNIs there a way to avoid supporting a business that essentially brings its product to us by way of enslavement? What do you recommend to people? Should we be buying tomatoes in the markets? What should we be doing?
ESTABROOKI recommend, like we said earlier, local, grow your own, buy locally. You know, there's 7,000 farmers' markets in the country now, and that employs a lot of people. In fact, some of the farmers' markets give permanent employment to former tomato workers from Florida -- I mean, farmer market growers. So that's the thing everybody can do. And certain grocery stores have been supportive of these labor issues, Whole Foods and Trader Joe's.
ESTABROOKSo you can buy tomatoes with confidence there.
BROWNSo you can take some action.
ESTABROOKYou can do that. Right.
BROWNYou can do it. You can do it through the way you live. You can walk the walk. Let's bring Jennifer in from Washington, D.C. Jennifer, you're on the air.
JENNIFERHi there. Thanks for taking my call, Mr. Brown.
JENNIFERI just wanted to say that my education was actually at a land-grant institution, so I had a very conservative education in regards to agriculture. And I moved to Washington, D.C. with the hopes that I would be able to change all of this and maybe get a more enlightened view of agriculture, particularly internationally. And I started working at a CSA farm, a private farm in Maryland.
BROWNAnd that's community...
BROWNThat's community-supported agriculture, right?
JENNIFERYes. And I've actually -- well, now, I live in a green house, and we all are very open about where we buy our food and sort of the ethics behind it. And I started writing about our food, and I started writing about how easy it is to make this change and how essential it is to understand that you're voting with your money. Whenever you buy food, you're voting for the processes that support every little action, from the time it's planted to the time it's prepared, served, boxed or frozen, and on your table. So...
BROWNWell, thanks for the call, Jennifer. It sounds as though you are doing the sort of thing that Barry Estabrook recommends, that you're taking a fairly active role in sourcing your food.
JENNIFERThat's what I'm trying.
BROWNBarry, how hard is it to do in communities away from Washington, D.C., San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia, places like that?
ESTABROOKWell, of course, it varies.
BROWNJennifer, thanks for the call.
ESTABROOKIt varies. But I think -- and if you'd asked me this five years ago, I would say darn hard. But it's getting easier all the time. It's hard to find a place now in the country that doesn't have a good farmers' market. And, you know, if you do have enough land, grow a small vegetable patch.
ESTABROOKTomatoes are a great entry drug.
BROWNAre markets, are food stores more open to telling you where their food is coming from these days than they were in the past? Is that your sense?
ESTABROOKMy sense is that the supermarket industry as a whole is not. They don't want us to think about these things, whether it's where those perfect tomatoes come from or where those nicely sealed pork chop packages come from. They -- they're designed to distance ourselves from food. And as Jennifer said, we really do need to get back to understanding that there's a huge -- a tomato may look like a tomato, but they can be totally different in every respect.
BROWNWhat are the best types of tomatoes to buy, to grow at home? We've heard about the industrial tomatoes. We've talked about some of the labor practices. We have Jennifer who just called in, who's writing a blog and getting really involved in sourcing her food. What are the best places? What are the best tomatoes to buy? One or two.
ESTABROOKWell, I can recommend varieties. You know, Brandywine is a great sort of traditional variety. But mainly it's find out what people are growing around where you live, or check out the farmers' market and see what they're growing 'cause things vary from region to region.
ESTABROOKThere's no one great tomato that's good for Vermont and Florida and Washington, D.C. So try a few varieties.
ESTABROOK...if you see a nice tomato or get a nice tomato at the farmers' market.
BROWNGreat. Barry Estabrook, thanks so much for coming in. "Tomatoland" is your book, "How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit." It's been great to talk with you. I'm Paul Brown from NPR, and this is "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
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