September 1, 2011

How Yogic are Your Tomatoes? ~ Charlotte Bell

Photo: Jonathan Ruchti

I’ll admit it. I’m a tomato snob.

Homegrown, organic, heirloom tomatoes in all shapes colors and sizes make the heat of August worth enduring. Nothing parallels eating a ripe tomato, fresh off the vine, still warm from the sun.

I first came to love homegrown tomatoes as a child—Big Boys and cherry tomatoes from our little patch in a sunny spot alongside our garage. I discovered heirlooms in the early ‘90s, and have grown them in my yard every year since then. Also in the early ‘90s, I quit eating grocery store tomatoes. The pinkish, mealy orbs insult my taste buds. I’d rather not eat tomatoes at all than eat flavorless tomato-shaped objects.

There is a reason why grocery store tomatoes lack the robust flavor and juiciness of vine-ripened tomatoes. Store tomatoes are mealy because they’re not allowed to ripen. Because a ripe tomato will never make it to a store undamaged, grocery store tomatoes have to be picked when they are still green and quite hard, so that they can be stacked deep in boxes without splitting. These unripe orbs are then sprayed with ethylene gas to make them turn red—not ripe, just red. They are still hard and unripe when they arrive at their destination, but at least they look a bit more appealing. Add to this the chemical fertilizers and pesticides contained in all commercial produce. No way will I eat them.

So when I heard that a new book titled Tomatoland:  How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit would be featured on NPR’s Talk of the Nation:  Science Friday I looked forward to it in anticipation of learning even more about the evils of the tomato-shaped fruit I eschew.

But Ira Flatow’s interview with the book’s author, Barry Estabrook, fueled my store tomato aversion in ways I hadn’t imagined.

Estabrook, a food writer and former contributing editor to Gourmet magazine, investigated Florida’s booming off-season tomato industry. According to NPR’s Fresh Air website, Estabrook says that:

The official Florida handbook for tomato growers lists 110 different fungicides, pesticides and herbicides that can be applied to a tomato field over the course of the growing season and many of those are what the Pesticide Action Network calls ‘bad actors’— they’re kind of the worst of the worst in the agricultural chemical arsenal.

You see, tomatoes originally came from the high desert of Peru, a dry, sunny climate. They do not do well in Florida’s non-stop humidity, and Florida growers plant them in sand instead of soil. All the missing nutrients must be pumped into the sand in synthetic form. The saturated air makes them moldy, so they must be treated with fungicides.


But here’s the distressing part of Florida’s tomato industry I never suspected: Tomato farm workers are at the absolute bottom of the farm labor barrel. Think The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s classic book about the crushing, desperate lives of migrant workers. On Science Friday, Estabrook spoke of workers locked in the backs of produce trucks at night, sometimes crammed together in shackles. These workers have to pay for a cold shower with a hose at the end of their workday.

A caller to Science Friday talked of workers jammed 10 to 12 in a mobile home they each pay $200 a month to share. Many are shipped from their villages in Central America and Mexico—a practice reminiscent of the U.S. slave trade of 200 years ago.

According to the Fresh Air interview, seven cases involving slavery in Florida agribusiness have been successfully prosecuted in the past 10 to 15 years, resulting in 1,200 people being freed. But the U.S. District Attorney for the state of Florida says this represents just a tiny, tiny tip of the iceberg.

In 1993 a group called Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), named after a town in Southern Florida, formed to improve labor conditions. For years, growers refused to talk with them, but last November they agreed to work with CIW on a fair food agreement, increasing workers’ wages by a penny a pound—the difference between their making $40 to $50 a day and $70 to $80 a day. The growers agreed to provide such newfound luxuries as a time clock and shade tarps so that workers can rest in the shade on their breaks.

So what does all this have to do with Yoga? A lot, actually. The first of Yoga’s Eight Limbs is yama, the ethical precepts, and the first of these is ahimsa, non-harming. I see ahimsa as the cornerstone of the entire practice. How can your mind be at peace when you are causing harm?

Alistair Shearer’s translation of Sutra 2.34 says:

Negative feelings such as violence are damaging to life, whether we act upon them ourselves or cause or condone them in others. They are born of greed, hatred and ignorance, and may be slight, moderate or intense. Their fruit is endless ignorance and suffering. To remember this is to cultivate the opposite.

What we do, how we treat our fellow travelers on this planet—and the planet itself—is the foundation of practice. But Yoga practice asks even more of us. The phrase cause or condone is significant. Yoga asks us to see a larger sphere than our own comfortable circle of friends and family.

Yoga challenges us to be aware of how our choices may be condoning harm to beings we may never know.

So as practitioners of Yoga, our job is to educate ourselves about the wider circle of life. Thich Nhat Hanh says that a table is not simply a table. It is an aggregate of many factors. When you look at a table, he suggests, you can also see the tree that provided the wood, the earth that gave the tree life, the rain that watered the tree, the cloud that produced the rain, the person who cut the tree, the craftsman who fashioned the wood into a table.

Where do your tomatoes come from?

Who picks them?

What are the stops along their journey to the grocery store display?

When I look at my homegrown tomatoes, I see the soil that nourishes them, the shovel I used to turn that soil in the spring, the drip system that waters them, the sun that ripens them. I can taste these things in my homegrown tomatoes.

Maybe you don’t have a place to grow tomatoes, but if you explore your town a bit more, perhaps you’ll find a source for tomatoes grown close to home. Or maybe your market sells tomatoes you know have been grown in “fair food” conditions. It may not be easy, however. When CIW polled the major U.S. supermarket chains as to whether they would be willing to pay a penny a pound more for tomatoes in order to follow fair food practices, only Whole Foods said yes.

Supermarkets may be willing to pay an extra penny a pound, however, if they know that their customers aren’t buying tomatoes grown in exploitative conditions. When consumers stop buying unhealthy, harmful products, suppliers listen. We can all choose with our pocketbooks what kind of commerce we wish to see in the world.

For me, a winter tomato fast is easy. I lost my taste for flavorless tomatoes long ago. But now when I look at a pale winter tomato, I will see workers sleeping in a produce truck, the chemicals they are exposed to every day—chemicals that are embedded in that pink tomato. And I will also see the efforts of the CIW, NPR and Barry Estabrook that have given me, and a whole lot of other people, the opportunity to make wiser choices.

Charlotte Bell discovered Yoga in 1982 and never looked back. She has taught classes, workshops and retreats since 1986. She is the author of the book Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life:  A Guide for Everyday Practice  (Rodmell Press) and the upcoming Yoga for Meditators (Rodmell Press). A longtime model for Hugger Mugger Yoga Products, she is the editor of their blog. Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and the folk group, Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmys in 2010.

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