Raise awareness of environmental health issues in order to better protect our children and future generations.

28 December 2011

Cultivation of Tomatoes

The industrial cultivation of tomatoes has as devastating an environmental and sociological impact as the cultivation of strawberries.

Barry Estabrook has written about industrial tomato production in Florida in his 2011 book, “Tomatoland”.

One billion pounds of tomatoes are shipped annually from Florida to other states.  Cultivation of tomatoes in Florida is a $500 million per year business.

Most Florida tomatoes are industrially cultivated in fields.  Since the plants are grown in nutrient-deprived sandy soil, artificial petroleum-based fertilizers are used to keep them alive.  The constantly humid air, which breeds 27 insect species and 29 diseases preying on plants, requires spraying with tons of expensive and toxic herbicides and pesticides.  These substances reduce the amounts of calcium, vitamins A and C and add up to 14 more times sodium in tomatoes than the ones our parents consumed.  Tomatoes  are picked by hand while still green and then gassed with ethylene, which is apparently safe, to turn them prematurely red, removing their taste and giving them a mealy texture.

Tomatoes are picked mainly by migrant Hispanic workers who are often housed in unsanitary conditions, exposed to toxic pesticides when working, and paid illegally low wages.  Most work long hours in the heat and are not provided with the proper gear to protect them from the close to 100 different herbicides and pesticides used to spray the fields.  These substances can cause birth defects and long-term medical ailments.  Some migrant workers are actual slaves, kidnapped or tricked into captivity by slave traders.  They live in trucks with no running water and are threatened or beaten when they fall sick or try to escape.

Tomatoes grown in Spain have an equally poor environmental and sociological impact.  The following information is taken from a 2005 British article “Under vast sheets of plastic enveloping Spain, Britain’s tomatoes are being grown without soil in a soup of chemicals controlled by computers” by Tom Rawstorne. I suspect that most of the tomatoes imported from Spain are still “cultivated” in this manner.

The roots of tomato plants never touch the soil.  The plants are trained on wires suspended from ceilings in greenhouses – vast expanses of white plastic sheets which can be seen from outer space.  They “grow” from plastic sacks of sterile, white perlite gravel.  The plants are watered by droplets from tubes running into the sacks.  The water is reinforced with chemical fertilizers.  Everything is controlled and measured by computers.  This same technique is used to grow peppers, zucchini, eggplant, melons.  Tomatoes grown in this manner contain less of the healthy antioxidant lycopene.  In some tomatoes imported from Spain into the United Kingdom, up to 26 different pesticides were found. 

Most tomato workers have temporary contracts with few benefits and are inadequately housed.  They work from dawn to dusk, from 10 to 12 hours a day, in often unsafe conditions.

The European Union imports most of its fresh tomatoes from Spain and the Canary Islands.  The environmental issues concerning their cultivation include waste disposal of plastics, landscape degradation, water consumption and pollution, soil pollution and erosion, habitat loss from expanding areas of cultivation.

Environmental degradation and and sacrificing workers' health are the prices we pay for demanding year-round fresh fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes and strawberries.

by Meris Michaels

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