Saturday, April 10, 2010

The politics behind our bland-tasting tomatoes

Review | 'Ripe': The politics behind our bland-tasting tomatoes
A former AP reporter delves into farmers' risks, the need for profits and the effect on the American diet.


Arthur Allen, a former Associated Press writer, focuses on the tomato industry, and he's somewhat more sympathetic to corporate farms and big business than trendsetter Michael Pollan and others writing on similar topics. The first part of Ripe includes a number of derisive comments about members of the ``crunchy left,'' who want cheap, locally grown, organic tomatoes year-round. Allen notes, rightly, that that's almost impossible to provide, given the climate in most of the country.

He visits Mexico, where the American entrepreneurs who run Del Cabo Farms are trying to help local farmers make a living by growing new hybrids to be shipped to U.S. markets. The question, Allen notes, is whether their tasty tomatoes will hold their flavor and form during the long journey north. That musing leads into an examination of U.S. tomato breeding that has created ever firmer, but increasingly bland, fruit. As labor problems and costs grew in California's tomato industry, farmers growing tomatoes for ketchup, sauce and other products turned to mechanical harvesting. Mechanical harvesters require tomatoes that fall off the vine when shaken -- but not before -- and can withstand sorting. Allen recounts how researchers at the University of California, Davis, helped develop these.

In Florida, farmers growing tomatoes for direct sale needed fruit that ripened slowly and wouldn't spoil during shipping. They eventually developed a method of picking tomatoes while they were green and then exposing them to ethylene gas to turn them red when they reached their destination.

But while Allen is understanding of the risks farmers face and their need to make a profit, he becomes increasingly critical of the effect of business interests on the U.S. diet as Ripe progresses. Americans eat tomatoes that fit the needs of Heinz, McDonald's and a few other corporate giants because those companies provide the bulk of farmers' sales. McDonald's and other fast-food companies need firm tomatoes that hold up when sliced thin and look nice on a hamburger bun. Taste, Allen insists, is not a priority.

Allen also delves into labor and trade issues, writing critically about the treatment of farmworkers in California and Florida.

While each chapter is focused, the book as a whole has a meandering feel as Allen jumps from plant breeding to international trade to labor organization. Parts are also heavy with science and Latin plant names. But readers with a strong interest in understanding the politics of food will probably find it enlightening.

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