Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Tomato Time -- a call to witness
distributed 8/26/11 - ©2011

On Wednesday of this week, we harvested the first, long-awaited tomato from the vines in front of our house. Weeks of anticipation were capped by the family ceremony of slicing and savoring the delightful flavor of a fresh-from-the-garden heirloom tomato.

Wednesday was the first one. Yesterday we picked 6, and there are half a dozen more ready to be plucked this evening. For the moment, at least, the sudden abundance of such a seasonal treat brings joy to the end of the summer. I'm thrilled with the prospect of this lush red fruit in salads and sandwiches, soups and casseroles, salsa and sauces, and just all by itself.

As the thriving plants continue to crank out vast quantities of produce, we'll be sharing buckets of them with our friends, neighbors, and a couple local food banks. (Our tomatoes will be received with more enthusiasm than our equally abundant zucchini.) Just before the first frost comes, we'll bring in lots of green tomatoes to gradually ripen, and we'll enjoy the frozen stuff well into the fall and winter.

Beyond that, we will generally avoid tomatoes, because the things that are available in grocery stores year round are not worth eating. The contrast between local, seasonal tomatoes and their industrial counterparts provides an excellent early fall opportunity for conversations about our modern food system, social and environmental health, and qualities of the good life.

I encourage you to push those conversations beyond a quick and superficial comment. Let a tomato or a peach or a fresh-roasted green chili pepper lead you into some substantial discussions about what we eat, and what we value.

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Barry Estabrook -- the author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit -- served up a vivid image when he was interviewed on NPR this summer. It is one of those radio moments where just a brief mention of the story, even weeks later, leads people to say, "Oh, I heard that one!" Perhaps you did, too. (If not, hear the story and read several related articles on the NPR website.)

Estabrook describes driving down a highway in Florida, behind a truck brimming with what looked like green apples. Several of them bounced off the truck, and rolled to the side of the road. When he stopped to look, he found that they were green tomatoes, on their way to supermarkets across the country, and most of them had survived the fall without splitting the skin. He said, "A ten foot drop followed by a 60 mile per hour impact with pavement is not big deal to a modern agribusiness tomato."

The tomatoes in our garden are bred for flavor and texture, to be good food. But industrial tomatoes are bred for high yields, uniformity and durability. Estabrook quotes "an honest farmer" who admitted that "I don't get paid a cent for flavor. I get paid for weight. And I don't know of any supermarket shopper who tastes her tomatoes before she puts them in her shopping cart." So the red things we get in grocery stores, restaurants and "fast food" outlets tastes like wet cardboard, and has about the same nutritional value.

The Florida tomato industry cranks out up to 90% of the tomatoes found in US supermarkets in the winter. Producing this huge monoculture from the state's sandy soil requires enormous amounts of fertilizers and pesticides -- it is factory farming with a huge environmental impact.

The tomato industry is also notorious for exploiting workers. The pay and working conditions are terrible, and there have been several cases of actual slavery prosecuted in recent years. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been diligent and remarkably successful in their almost two decade long fight for better wages and humane conditions, and to expose modern slavery. Many denominations and faith groups have joined with the CIW in boycotts and consumer actions, first against Taco Bell, and now many other corporate buyers. The first chapter of Mallory McDuff's great book, Natural Saints: How People of Faith Are Working to Save God's Earth, describes the importance of religion and churches in this eco-justice cause.

The difference between a real tomato and the supermarket imitation is so striking that the distortion of our food can't be ignored. We have allowed ourselves to believe that "the good life" is about year-round fruit and winter salads. It is sad, even frightening, that most people in the US have come to think of those indestructible products as normal, and that we have accepted the loss of healthy, flavorful, seasonal and justly-raised food.

Tomatoes may be the poster child for bad food -- but they are not the only example. A horrifying percentage of the food products in grocery stores are loaded with "high fructose corn syrup" [], and the growing prevalence of these empty calories may be contributing to the "obesity epidemic" and other health problems. The industrialization of livestock -- turkeys and chicken, cattle and hogs -- has produced the same combination of exploited and abused creatures, environmental damage, and food of lesser taste and quality.

If you have the opportunity to savor a fresh and tasty tomato, or if some other delightful food makes you aware of what we've lost -- in flavor and quality, in environmental health and in justice for God's creation -- then use that moment of culinary joy to engage in witness. Speak up for real food and a more just and sustainable food system.

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A few weeks ago, I urged you to join in protests against the Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring oil from Canada's "tar sands" across the US border. There are petitions to sign (from and one from the religious community) and letters to be written. Most visibly, a carefully organized and ongoing act of civil disobedience is being held in Washington, DC. So far, 322 people have been arrested in front of the White House, as they call on President Obama to deny the permit needed for the pipeline to be constructed.

I am deeply moved as I hear from my friends and colleagues who have been, or soon will be, arrested. I give thanks for their witness and hold them in my prayers. I am grateful that they also stand for me and for others who have not made the trip to Washington. I also know that -- if they serve as my proxy in this civil disobedience -- that I have an obligation to speak and act here with similar visibility and commitment.

I renew my call for us all to join in witness, protest and political action, in honor of my friends who have been arrested: Andy Burt, Mari Castellanos, Jim Antal, Jerome Wagner, Bill McKibben and Bob McGahey.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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