Do the best tomatoes come in cans?

Mark Bittman defends industrial farming

Topics: big agriculture, Mark Bittman, Food Industry, organic food,

Just as not everybody can go out and catch their own fish, it’s unrealistic to wish people could just grow their own tomatoes. Not everyone can access or afford the organic stuff peddled at farmers markets, either. But is some people’s worst-case scenario — the stuff you get, off a shelf, in a can — really so bad?

In the New York Times this weekend, Mark Bittman wonders how cheap, mass-produced and yes, delicious, canned tomatoes are made possible. He goes into his investigation expecting the worst, because, he explains, when it comes to food production, we tend to assume “industrial” is a bad word. (Case in point: I had a lot of trouble finding a nice, enticing photo of canned tomatoes to accompany this post, but there were plenty of still lives of unlabeled mason jars, intended, I supposed, to evoke “artisanal” and by-hand operations.)

So Bittman visits a Big Farm in Sacramento Valley, featuring thousands of acres, 40 employees, a waste-reducing irrigation system and some very heavy machinery. Conditions are idyllic not in a returning to the garden sort of way, but rather in terms of pure industrial efficiency:

The tomatoes are bred to ripen simultaneously because there is just one harvest. They’re also blocky in shape, the better to move along conveyor belts. Hundreds of types of tomatoes are grown for processing, bred for acidity, disease resistance, use, sweetness, wall thickness, ripening date and so on. They’re not referred to by cuddly names like “Early Girl” but by number: “BQ 205.” I tasted two; they had a firm, pleasant texture and mild but real flavor, and were better than any tomatoes — even so-called heirlooms — sold in my supermarket.

What Bittman finds may subvert expectations; he’s not really arguing that this is a better alternative to small-scale, organic farms. Instead, he points out that the industrial innovation that makes this kind of large-scale production possible is a sign of progress:

Fifty years ago, tomatoes were picked by hand, backbreaking piecework that involved filling and lugging 50-pound boxes. Workers had few rights and suffered much abuse, as did the land: irrigation and fertilizer use were more wasteful, and chemicals were applied liberally and by the calendar, not sparingly by need.



For the most part, Bittman concludes that the processes and products he observes, both at this farm and at an industrial cannery that supplies many of the major supermarket chains, are “healthy, fair, green and affordable.” He doesn’t meet any Old MacDonalds, but he doesn’t uncover anything resembling indentured servitude, either.

Yes, there’s plenty of room for improvement. Higher prices, Bittman concludes, would allow for these places to come closer to fulfilling his four requirements. When you buy organic, you’re purchasing a promise, and can generally be assured that you’re supporting a sustainable system. But it’s hard to argue against cheap, delicious, “close-to-natural” food — even if that means our tomatoes come without nicknames.

Lindsay Abrams

Lindsay Abrams is a staff writer at Salon, reporting on all things sustainable. Follow her on Twitter @readingirl, email labrams@salon.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.

    Domino's

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.

    Arby's/Facebook

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.

    KFC

    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    Pizzagamechangers.com

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.

    7-Eleven

    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

Loading Comments...