Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit
by Barry Estabrook
In 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 for me. It seems that this book is only about tomatoes from Florida, while California, 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? But how do those taste? (Please note, I do not like tomatoes so I don't know if they're "good" or not.) He eventually gets back to discussing tomato genetics and breeding near the end, but it's too disconnected and confusing by that point.
Better editing might have helped, but it reads more like a *very* lengthy NY Times article. He recounts so many happy stories at the end that it gives the impression conditions have already changed, or are at least on the right track, thus undermining his call for action. In one of the stories he tells how government subsidized housing is being provided at incredibly low cost to migrant workers (so low it could be foreclosed any day) but 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."
J. Green, Los Angeles, Ca. (amazon.com)