A Tomato Revolution

By Michael Ableman

Last spring, almost 6,000 tomato plants perished in my nursery. It was a gruesome scene -- 27 flats of beautiful, lush green starts withered to dried-up brown stalks in just two days. We had started them early, probably too early, and had to wait out a rainy season that refused to end. The plants were 8 inches tall and had outgrown the tiny 1-inch cells in which they germinated. When it was all over, it looked as if someone had taken a torch to all 27 flats.

Now, months later, it is summer and I'm over the loss. I'm wandering up and down sprawling rows of cherry tomato plants with a group of kids from south central Los Angeles on their first harvesting experience. They have never been on a farm before, most have never had fresh food from a field or garden. I watch their faces as they pick and eat, and I can see their brains exploding with new information as they taste the fruits of our second -- this time successful -- planting. I'm already thinking about the late planting. If I'm lucky, we'll still be picking the last stragglers right up to Christmas. It's an annual ritual: I try for the early crop, hope for the late, and midseason never lets me down.

Every gardener grows tomato plants, at least one or two, in a window box, an old tire, on raised beds, in cages, staked, tied, trellised, glassed in, even surrounded with plastic Walls O' Waters. Ask why and most people will say it's the taste, that warm, vine-ripe, juicy experience that can only come from one's own plants grown steps from the kitchen.

Now science presents the 'Flavrsavr' tomato, genetically engineered to look ripe and ready on the shelf for weeks. Science has liberated us from this annual chore, bred in that homegrown look, even some flavor. Should we now stop growing our own? Can scientists breed for the pleasure of the process, the nurturing, the satisfaction of working with nature to produce something real for ourselves and our families?

When I was 19 years old, I worked at Farmer Joe's Market. (Joe had never set foot on a farm.) I was fascinated with the pallets of unripe tomatoes that rolled in year-round to the back of the store. Packed in two layers, the hard-as-a-rock, sickly green globes sat in the back for a week until they turned salmon in color and we'd put them on the shelves. When "Farmer" Joe wasn't around, we would toss them back and forth and bounce them off the back wall and then place them back in their boxes. No one ever noticed the difference.

These tomatoes were bred for durability, but in the process we lost more than flavor. The undignified journey of the tomato from the fields of industrial agriculture to the kitchen table is emblematic of our current food system. This cannot be fixed simply by tinkering with plant genetics. In the past 50 years, our society has migrated from family farms and rural communities. We have become a culture of refugees from the land, and for many the taste of summer tomatoes is all that's left of a living memory.

We are now realizing that techno-chemical agriculture, while it first appeared to be miraculous, has hidden costs. Twelve million pounds of toxic, ozone-depleting methyl bromide are used each year in Florida alone to keep tomatoes on our winter tables. The sterilized soil in which these tomatoes grow has merely become a medium to hold the roots of the plants. In the absence of living soil, pesticides and nitrate fertilizers are necessary to substitute for natural fertility and disease resistance, even as these chemicals present potential dangers to our personal health and the health of our earth.

The yearly ritual of selecting, planting, harvesting, and savoring our backyard tomatoes is an act of revolution against a food system that is increasingly far removed from our needs, both practically and spiritually. When we choose to grow our own, even if it is a single plant in a window box, we take back control of one aspect of our lives, bring more context to our tables, and impact the world around us in ways small and large.

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