Wednesday, 13 July 2011

I have been concentrating as a journalist on food for some time and as a result I have come across many stories that have caught my attention and made me think. Because I have been working on a story about a new tomato variety development project being carried out in a government-private partnership in Queensland I have come across a number of writings about tomatoes. This book is one of them.

Finding the book and reading more than half of it changed my approach to the story I am writing on the tomato development. Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland (2011) is a piece of investigative journalism on an unusual subject. It's also an unusual book in other ways. Estabrook is originally a food writer who has brought his writing skills to bear on a different angle of food: the way it is produced. He has written for such American food publications as Gourmet and Eating Well magazines. And his new book was brought out by a small publishing company - Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC - with offices in Kansas and Sydney! When I say that reading the book changed my way of thinking about my own project I don't mean to say that I have decided to write 150,000 words on the development of hybrid tomato varieties (although that would no doubt be a worthy project). But the book did alert me to a weakness inherent in writing stories that depend mainly on the input of the main players. So I decided to also talk with a company that markets heirloom seeds. Heirloom fruit are distinct from the modern hybrid varieties developed by multinational seed companies, in that they are the "original" varieties that our parents ate and that can be found possibly in some restaurants where the food culture has taken an alternative direction.

Heirloom tomatoes matter a lot to Estabrook. The book starts with the writer driving his car down an interstate highway in Florida. When he comes up behind a truck laden with green tomatoes he is concerned because some of the fruit bounce off the truck into the road. He gets out of the car to find the road littered with undamaged tomatoes. The rock-hard fruit have simply bounced to the roadside where they will eventually rot but their consistency forces the writer's mind to contemplate an unmistakeable fact of the modern food production system. It is designed to favour appearance over flavour.

Estabrook does not stop there. Up to where I have read in the book there are two things about tomato growing that incite the writer's alarm. One is a lack of safety in an industry that uses a lot of highly toxic chemicals for pest control and fertilisation. Florida's sandy soil is not an ideal medium to grow tomatoes in and growers compensate for this lack by applying a number of pesticides prior to planting seedlings and at other times during plant growth. The migrant workers who work in the paddocks do not understand in many cases how to interact with the chemicals, and in addition a casual attitude to worker safety means that exposure to potent chemicals happened frequently. In one case a number of pregnant women working on farms gave birth to deformed babies. Estabrook examines the reaction of the growers to the events. It is sad and enlightening.

Even more frightening are the slaves kept by crew bosses to work in the fields for almost no pay. Despite criminal investigations and convictions the trade in slaves continues. Tomatoes are farmed using labour made up of men and women brought into American by unscrupulous operators who intercept them as they cross the US border and place them in trucks for transport to Florida. There they are kept in unsantiary conditions and forced to pay off "loans" incurred, the bosses say, while bringing them to the States. When they try to escape they are beaten or killed. Estabrook relies to a significant degree on the testimony of men and women attached to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a local peak body with 4000 members. Most disturbing is the fact that growers know that slavery happens but do nothing about it. Weak laws mean that there is little incentive to disturb a system that supplies them with cheap and reliable labour. Workers' rights are not a major concern for private companies.

Immokalee is a small, poor town near the rich conurbation of Naples, Florida. As an Australian journalist Estabrook's stories are interesting for me but the paradigm probably does not easily transfer to this country. In Australia, there are low-paid workers picking fruit and vegetables, including backpackers, and certainly I think that there are good stories to be told about our own horticulture industry. But slavery? I doubt it. Then again, you never know. If I put in the hours needed to find out more about Australia's horticultural labour I might be surprised by what I discover.

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