the tomato economy

by isaac black

A ripe, homegrown tomato at the end of summer is one of the most delicious things you can eat. Chances are, you can also get one, or even a grocery sack full, for free. In the right season in the Philippines, the same is true of mangoes: bigger than your fist, golden yellow and syrupy. 

The growing season frustrates the order and impatience of capitalism. The supply and demand curve gets ruined once a year—abundant harvests make it temporarily imperative to give away fruits that one can’t buy for any price during the winter. It is remarkably inefficient, even decadent. 

The American answer to the exuberance of seasons is to source produce from a shifting swath of the globe, aided by too-cheap fossil fuels and hegemonic trade agreements, not to mention the tinkering of genes to turn food into both packaging and product. Whether it is January or August, your tomatoes are perfectly round and sunburnt red on the outside and jaundiced on the inside, but they are available. 

I am in fact praising the decadence of the natural growing season, though that doesn’t mean I’m ungrateful for the so-called Green Revolution or so privileged that I’m blind to the benefits of a food supply that reliably feeds hundreds of millions for a small percentage of their income. But, similar to the paradox of a system that can’t produce tomato-flavored tomatoes in the height of summer is the paradox of such efficiency in a country in which 40% of food is wasted.

Jesus, when he was tempted by the devil in the wilderness, stated that people will not live by bread alone. He was referencing Jehovah’s commandment to the Israelite recipients of manna, the hoary, fluffy bread that appeared in the morning while they wandered in the wilderness. Jehovah promised to feed them daily, but if they tried to stockpile the food it would get wormy the next day. Science has created the anti-manna: our bread never gets moldy, but all the chemical preservatives require loading it with sugar to make it palatable. We’ve turned the gift of manna, of delicious food, into a commodity. We feel entitled to waste it because we paid for it. Conversely and correctly, we’d rather give away a homegrown tomato than let it rot.

The push for techno-food isn’t, after all, about efficiency. It’s about profit. Ag corporations grow watery tomatoes because once the produce is out the door of the supermarket, they no longer care about it. They have their dollar. If you throw it away they could care less; in fact they’ve wasted many more tomatoes in the mass harvest. They are only concerned with threats to the whole crop: pests, weeds, anti-slavery laws. 

The desire is for ownership. Big ag companies have patented genomes of crops that they purport to have invented. The domestication of plants like corn represents a beautiful chain of cooperation among farmers across generations stretching back millennia. These farmers knew their crops well enough to preserve the seeds of the best plants. Patenting the end result of these efforts is like running the last leg of a thousand person relay and keeping the medal for oneself. It’s disrespectful, wrong, and illustrative of the distorted way we think about food. 

I remember when I first heard about a community garden. It sounded unrealistically utopian to my young, American mind. I scoffingly asked how well something like that worked out. I couldn’t imagine a bunch of white folks weeding a zucchini plant only to share the spoils. The reply was bemusedly matter of fact: it works well. There is something magic and humbling about pulling one’s dinner out of the dirt. No matter how much understanding one may have about cellular mitosis and photosynthesis, it will always feel miraculous to sow a seed and witness a green shoot coming up days later. It feels like a gift, and since we can’t exactly repay the gift to the soil, it only makes sense to pass something along to our neighbors. 

If community gardens can work in one of the most atomistic, property-obsessed cultures in the world, then food is truly something special. What I would like to see is more people grow their own food. I would like to see food considered more a gift than a product. And from there? Maybe it could be shared across boundaries. Maybe the sense of blessing we get from homegrown food could extend to all property, and greed could erode away. It sounds unrealistic, but have you had my tomatoes?