Attack of the Killer Tomato
Spring 2003 , Reprint Earth Island Journal
By Peter Bahouth
The tomato on my plate posed a mystery. Its heritage was already suspect simply because it was January and we were in Canada. But the tomato’s bland color and even more bland flavor erased any illusion of a fruitful youth on a farm anywhere near where we were. My tomato looked so out of place and so unappealing that I figured it must have gone through hell just to get there and once it did, it no longer seemed much like a tomato anyway.
While we might not expect a restaurant to serve up a juicy, great-tasting, locally-grown tomato when there is three feet of snow outside, we do expect to be able to get a tomato of some sort, wherever we are, whenever we want. I wondered what it takes to always have tomatoes in places where 100 years ago people would not see tomatoes for most of the year. As I looked at my tomato, it seemed that “whatever it takes” has altered the taste, appearance, genetics and nutritional value of the tomato, and not for the better. I wanted to know what else had changed. So I became an amateur tomato sleuth and retraced its journey.
My tomato’s life began in Mexico on land acquired by the U.S. – based Jolly Green Giant Company in partnership with the Mexican Development Corporation. Previously the land was used by local Mexican farmers as a public, cooperative farm called an “ejido.” The tomato seed, though based on a Mexican strain, is now a hybrid, patented and owned by Calgene Inc., a genetic engineering firm that relied on taxpayer-funded research by the University of California, Davis.
The company fumigated the land with methyl-bromide, one of the most ozone-depleting chemicals in existence. It was then doused with toxic pesticides developed, manufactured and distributed by Monsanto. Production waste from the pesticide manufacturing process was sent to the world’s largest hazardous waste landfill in Emelle, Alabama, a predominately poor African-American community. The Mexican farm workers, displaced from their cooperative land, were given no protection from the pesticides they applied: no gloves, masks or proper safety instructions. The workers made $2.50 per day and have no access to health care.
Once harvested, the tomato was put on a plastic tray, covered in plastic wrap, and then packed in cardboard boxes. The plastic was made with chlorine manufactured by the Formosa Company of Point Comfort, Texas. Workers and residents of Point Comfort face a potentially significant rise in cancer, immune suppression, and developmental effects from exposure to dioxins, by-products of chlorine manufacturing. The cardboard began as wood from a 300-year-old tree in British Columbia, and was pulped in a mill on the Great Lakes where residents are warned against eating dioxin-contaminated fish. The cardboard was then shipped by United Trucking Company to Latin American farms. The boxed tomatoes – reddened by ether, nutritionally-impaired, and relatively tasteless – are sent via refrigerated trucks throughout North America.
Once the tomato reached its destination in Toronto, the plastic and cardboard packaging is thrown into the trash, where it is picked up by the municipality, shipped back into the U.S. and burned in an incinerator in Detroit, Michigan.
Throughout the process fossil fuels drive the tomato’s trip. Fueling the trucks, fouling the air, and warming the climate is oil drilled for in the Gulf of Comanche, Mexico, extracted by Chevron and processed by Pemex. This fuel which makes my tomato’s trip possible is then shipped via tanker, dodging 3,800 existing oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico to refineries on the U.S. Gulf coast which are uniquely responsible for a host of the region’s environmental and economic problems. The refined fuel is then distributed to the plastic makers, pesticide pushers, packaging barons and motor vehicles that make this tomato’s 3,800 mile attack possible.
The tomato on my salad probably cost about 50 cents. I paid for the tomato, but we will all pay the environmental, social and health costs that lie in its wake. But we can rebel. When you consider the altered nature of the killer tomato and its benefactors, having a garden and growing your own can be a very subversive and radical act. And that makes the fruit taste that much sweeter.