PAN in conversation with Barry Estabrook | Pesticide Action Network
Reclaiming the future of food and farming

PAN in conversation with Barry Estabrook

Barry EstabrookFor eight years Barry Estabrook was a reporter for Gourmet Magazine, where he investigated and wrote behind-the-scene stories chronicling how our food is produced. He is currently a U.S. food writer, founding editor of Equinox magazine and the author of the bestseller (and PAN premium) Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.

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PAN sat down with Barry Estabrook to discuss PAN, tomatoes and how they are connected.

PAN: Your blog on tomatoes received a James Beard Award and your book that followed, Tomatoland, is a bestseller and has been very well received. What prompted it all how did you get interested in the story of tomatoes?

Barry: My interest in tomatoes started with taste — or lack thereof. But I soon realized that the out-of-season tomato was a poster child for much of what is wrong with modern industrial agriculture. If you strip away — or in some cases deliberately contravene — all things sustainable, organic, seasonal, local and fair trade you end up with a winter tomato, along with a litany of horrors that range from abject slavery to workers being regularly sprayed with pesticides, including many that PAN rates as Bad Actors — carcinogens, neurotoxins, mutagens, and ones that can be fatal upon contact.

You write that Florida is an inhospitable place for growing tomatoes because of the humidity and the poor soil. Why did the tomato industry develop there?
Florida’s tomato industry has nothing to do with botany and horticulture. If those were the criteria, Florida would be one of the worst places imaginable to grow tomatoes. The industry has everything to do with money: Florida happens to be warm enough to get a crop of tomatoes at a time of year when much of the country is too cold. And consumers are willing to buy these hard, tasteless winter tomatoes.

Can you tell us something about the pesticide use in the tomato industry in Florida?

Well, the Florida Department of Agriculture puts out an annual vegetable production manual. It lists more than 100 pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides that can be applied to a field of tomatoes. The fields are inspected regularly by “scouts,” who recommend what should be sprayed. A field gets hit with pesticides up to twice-weekly. Florida and California produce the same amount of fresh-market tomatoes on the same acreage. Because of adverse growing conditions, Florida farmers apply eight times as much chemical pesticides as California farmers.

In your book you write about actual cases of slavery in the tomato growing industry in Florida. What’s being done about them?    

Seven major slavery cases in Florida agriculture have been successfully brought to justice in the past 15 years, freeing 1,200 people. The good news is that the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, an industry trade group, this year finally agreed to operate under something called the Fair Food Agreement. That agreement was implemented after nearly two-decades of efforts by a labor rights organization called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, named after a Florida town populated by migrant tomato workers. For the first time, the Fair Food Agreement provides a clear mechanism that allows workers to report slavery, sexual harassment, and other rights violations. That alone should drastically reduce slavery or make it more likely to be prosecuted if it occurs. Before, there was simply no way a worker could report such abuses even if he or she saw them or was a victim.

Tomatoland BookYou write that Florida farmers are under tremendous financial stress. At least one of their costly inputs are the hazardous chemicals they apply.  What role do the agrichemical corporations play in Florida farming?

Producers of commodity tomatoes in Florida operate on razor-thin margins and face competition from Mexican growers. Prices can get so low that crops are left in the fields because it doesn’t pay to harvest them. Nonetheless, a typical Florida tomato farmer applies about $2,000 worth of chemical pesticides to every acre he works, even though it is possible to raise tomatoes organically in the state. (I interviewed one Florida producer successfully farmed on 1,200 acres without chemicals.) So it’s only natural that agrichemical corporations play an active role in Florida agriculture. One example that stands out: Arysta LifeScience, the company that makes methyl iodide, worked hand-in-hand with the Florida Department of Agriculture on studies that led to methyl iodide’s approval for tomatoes and other crops.

In your book you write that today’s supermarket tomatoes are much lower in nutrition than those available in the 1960s. Why is this? Is there a relationship with lower nutritional value and inferior taste?

Because we eat so many of them, tomatoes are an important source of nutrition in the American diet. Yet, according to the Department of Agriculture, a modern tomato has 62 percent less calcium, 30 percent less vitamin C, and 19 percent less niacin by weight than its 1960s counterpart. But it does shame its Kennedy-era cousin in one area: It has fourteen times as much sodium. One reason is that for the past 50 years commercial plant breeders have focused on one thing — yield, pounds of tomatoes per plant. Essentially they’ve taken the tomato’s nutrient package and added water. The output of an industrial tomato plant simply exceeds its ability to manufacture nutrients. I have also seen studies linking application of nitrogen-rich chemical fertilizer to increased sodium levels.

Photo: CIW / Scott Robertson

In your research did you learn of any promising innovations in tomato breeding or production methods that might help address some of the production problems Florida tomato farmers face?  
There are glimmers of hope. The University of California Davis has a collection of seeds from tomatoes’ wild relatives. These produce inedible fruits for the most part, but they have resistance to many common tomato diseases and insect pests that are now controlled by chemical applications. Using traditional, not genetically modified breeding methods, researchers are tapping this seed bank to develop commercial tomatoes with natural resistance, reducing the need of chemical use.

Where are you from/currently based? Do you have a farm/garden of your own?
I’m fortunate to live on 30 acres in Vermont where I raise a big garden and tend a flock of egg-laying hens. The garden keeps me awash in vegetables and fruits for six months a year, and I have never sprayed it with a chemical pesticide or fertilized with anything other than cover crops and contributions from the hens when I muck out their house.  

How did you first learn of PAN and why have you chosen to support our work?  

I can’t recall when I first learned of PAN. It seems like it has always been there. Thank God! As a journalist who has spent more than a decade covering how our food is produced, I have made hundreds of visits to PAN’s Pesticide Database. It is an unrivaled resource on every conceivable pesticide, thoroughly researched but presented in a way that is easy to access and understand, whether you’re a journalist or a consumer curious about what they are spraying on your food.

Did you use any of PAN’s reference materials in researching your book?

Large parts of the book wouldn’t have been written without PAN. I referenced several of PAN’s scientific studies, including those showing that tomatoes could be grown profitably without the use toxic chemicals such as methyl bromide and methyl iodide, something the industry says is not possible. I used PAN’s to identify the effects of more than 100 chemicals that Florida tomato growers apply to their fields. If this information had not been compiled and made available to me (or anyone else) online, there is no way I could have found out the truth. I have neither the scientific expertise, the time, nor the resources to do that myself.

Your analysis of modern industrial agriculture is quite sobering. What do you recommend people do to help move us toward a healthier food system?

What to do? The best place to start is at home by buying (or better yet growing) organic food. Then I think we all have to do our bit getting the truth out about industrial food production. PAN and other groups have made tremendous progress in making consumers aware of the problems with our industrialized food system, but there is a lot of work to be done, and the agrichemical companies have huge budgets to spend on misinformation campaigns and lobbying politicians.