Attack of the Killer Tomato, by Peter Bahouth

Last January, while sitting in a restaurant in Toronto, I ordered a salad. The salad came with a tomato on it. I found myself wondering, "Where did this tomato come from?" So I tracked it.

This tomato's story begins on land acquired by the US-based Jolly Green Giant Company in partnership with the Mexican Development Corporation. The land was previously an ejido - land used by farmers for publicly owned cooperative farms.

The tomato seed, a hybrid developed from an original Mexican strain, is now patented and owned by Calgene, Inc., which purchased the research from the University of California at Davis. The University developed the hybrid with a research grant paid for by U.S. tax dollars.

The land was fumigated with methyl bromide, an ozone-depleter 120 times more potent than Chloroflourocarbon-111 (CFC-111). It was also treated with pesticides developed, manufactured and distributed by the Monsanto corporation, one of the US' largest polluters. Production waste was shipped to the world's largest hazardous waste landfill in Emelle, Alabama - a predominantly poor African-American community.

The Mexican farm workers were given no protection from the pesticides: no gloves, masks or safety instructions. They make approximately $2.50 a day and have no access to health care.

Once harvested, the tomato was placed was placed with others on a plastic tray covered in plastic wrap, then placed in a cardboard box. The plastic is manufactured with chlorine produced by the Formosa company of Point Comfort, Texas. Workers and citizens of Point Comfort face a potentially significant risk of cancer and immune-suppression disease due to exposure to dioxin, a byproduct of chlorine production.

The cardboard comes from British Columbia's 300-year-old trees, which are processed in Great Lake-region pulp mills, where residents are warned against eating dioxin-contaminated fish. The cardboard is then shipped by the United Trucking Company to Latin American farms.

The boxed tomatoes, reddened by ether (a tasteless gas with no nutritional value), are sent via refrigerated trucks throughout North America. Both trucks and distribution centers are equipped with CFC cooling equipment made by DuPont of Wilmington, Deleware. Once the tomato arrived at its destination in Toronto, the plastic packaging was thrown away, picked up, shipped back into the U.S. and burned in incinerators in Detroit, Michigan.

Throughout the process, fossil fuels drive the tomato's trip. The oil that fuels the trucks (and warms the climate) is drilled from the Gulf of Comache, Mexico, extracted by Chevron and processed by Pemex, the Mexican national oil company. The fuel that makes the tomato's trip possible is then shipped via tanker (dodging 3800 existing oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico to refineries in the U.S. Gulf coast that are uniquely responsible for the death of the region's environment and economy. The fuel is then distributed to the plastic makers, pesticide pushers, packaging barons and motor-vehicle owners that make this killer tomato's 3,000-mile attack possible.

If we look at the true economics of an everyday item like a 50-cent tomato - including the social costs of this type of production - you can see what is really driving this type of economic system. You realize that having your own garden and growing your own tomatoes can be a very subversive and radical act.

And it makes the fruit taste that much sweeter.

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Revision: 1-26-2007.