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Winning the Great Tomato War

arthur allen

While I was traveling and writing “Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato,” I ended up on the southernmost tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula one April morning. For the past 25 years, a couple named Larry Jacobs and Sandra Belin have run a business that employs thousands of peasant farmers growing small cherry, pear and plum tomatoes, which are sold under the brand Del Cabo in plastic clam shells that go for $4 a pop at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and other U.S. markets.

So we’re driving down a dirt road toward the coast through the desert in bloom and suddenly we come upon a two-acre plot planted up against a sandstone cliff, a beautiful sight to behold. The pale green tomato vines are roped luxuriantly around what seem like miles of training twine, and there are thousands, tens of thousands, of these beautiful spherical yellow berries — cherry tomatoes of the variety Golden Honey Bunch.

I’ve tried to describe the flavor of these tomatoes, but I can’t really recapture it. They were the best tomatoes I’d ever eaten, I know that much. In my notebook, I described overtones of cantaloupe and mango and honey. The skins were fairly thick, so when you bit through them they popped open, showering the back of your tongue with a tangy surprise (why is it that food writing always ends up sounding pornographic?).

But they weren’t authentic, and politically incorrect at that. First, they were grown far, far away from the locavore-minded foodies expected to buy them back in the States. Second, though they were organic — fertilized with fish meal and fumigated with sulfur, rather than petrochemicals — they were not heirlooms. That is, they were not tomato varieties that had been lovingly handed down from generation to generation. Instead, these yellow gems were hybrids, developed by a scientist named Kanti Rawal, a guy with a doctorate in genetics who earlier in his career had worked on the notorious Flavr Savr tomato for the California company Calgene, and before that for Del Monte, where he’d precociously developed the idea of a yellow canning tomato.

"Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato"

I guess I should have felt bad about enjoying these tomatoes that were so globalized and non-authentic. But you know what? I really liked them. I also liked the people who produced them, Larry and Sandy and Kanti and the farmers I met, some of whom had been uprooted from their own lands and were happy to be back on a farm earning enough to support their families.

Producing hybrid tomatoes is a remarkably globalized business. To make hybrid seed, each individual tomato flower has to be fertilized by hand, which means that to produce, say, a million seeds, something like 15,000 individual acts of pollination must be performed by hand (check out this video to see how it’s done). Each time a flower is successfully pollinated, it produces a tomato fruit, which yields about 75 hybrid seeds. Naturally, tomato-seed developers get this done in low-wage countries like Thailand, China, India and Vietnam.

The best tomatoes grow best in hot places with little rain, probably because their ancestors originated in the deserts of western South America. But these tomatoes I was enjoying in the middle of the Mexican desert came from seed produced in Southeast Asia. The result was a hybrid that was tough enough — and tasty enough — to be palatable enough to be sold to a discerning shopper in Boston 10 days after being picked.

An heirloom variety of any kind is a food crop that has evolved under conditions of soil, humidity, sunlight and so on that are specific to a small geographic area. It is also designed to be eaten in that area. A few hours after you pick an heirloom, it starts to rot. And that’s entirely appropriate. Like any other organism, the tomato’s “natural” objective is to reproduce itself. It does this best by starting to fall apart as soon as it’s ripe. There on the ground, as the molds and bacteria and insects begin their work of deconstructing the tomato fruit, birds and other animals attracted to the scent of high ripeness, which also happen to be the scents that attract us to a genuine, “authentic” tomato, come to snap it up, flesh and seeds together, aiding in the work of its propagation by moving along to another site where they deposit it in a pile of stool, a very convenient germination site for a tomato seed.

Eventually, heirlooms tend to get wiped out by blights or droughts or depleted soils. All those famines in history, the ones that drove people in Ireland and India and China into starvation, those came about in populations of people who had become reliant on heirloom crops that failed. And when the heirloom peoples of the Americas met the highly citified Europeans, who had gained hybrid vigor by undergoing generations of war, rape, conquest and epidemics, guess whose civilization prevailed? The indigenous peoples ate better than the Europeans — they gave them corn, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and chocolate. The European contribution to the Columbian exchange featured smallpox and measles. OK, and horses and livestock.

Hybrids are and will continue to be the most productive commercial tomato crops just as they are the most important crops of almost any kind. In recent years a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded group has been helping to provide hybrid grain and tuber seeds to millions of poor farmers in Africa, in many cases enabling them to double or triple their yields. Try telling one of these Ugandan or Malawian or Ghanaian farmers that it would be wiser to return to the timeless practices of the ancestors.

Arthur Allen eats heirloom and hybrid tomatoes in Washington, D.C. He is the author of “Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato”(Counterpoint Press, 2010).

Photos, from top:
Arthur Allen portrait. Credit: Nick Allen
“Ripe” book jacket. Credit: Silverander Communcations