Seeds of Slavery
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Almost the end of summer and tomatoes are still available by the honor system at shaded tables outside exurban homes. Homegrown and resplendently red with the added charm of various cosmetic blemishes, these aren’t the tomatoes that go to the prom but they do have ‘personality.’ They smell tomatoey and make the perfect BLT sandwich or mozzarella, tomato and basil salad.
Then there’s the tomatoes you can get the rest of the year at the supermarket. For the most part they come from Florida and what is happening there is a national disgrace. Investigative food journalist Barry Estabrook just came out with his book Tomatoland, an Upton Sinclair like account of the human trafficking, slavery, unfair labor practices, pesticide, fungicide and herbicide poisoning of farmworkers there. I guarantee that reading this book will make you think twice about the human cost for ‘Barbie’ perfection of Florida tomatoes. Florida tomatoes are non-native and are grown in sand with no intrinsic nutrients and so are mega-dosed with fertilizers and the aforementioned 'cides' because they have no resistance to native pests and plant diseases.
Would You Like a 'Cide' with That?
As conventionally attractive as a supermarket tomato might be, the over 100 chemicals sprayed on the tomatoes while they’re in the field and the ethylene gassing they receive after picking cannot be just washed off. And the worst of it is the workers picking them and tending to them are exposed despite federal mandates specifically prohibiting the exposure. The sad litany of disease, birth defects and death is recounted in Estabrook’s book. Why would you want to buy a tomato that is nutritionally inferior despite its bath of ‘cides?’
Then there is the darkest ‘cide’ of all; Estabrook alludes to homicides of migrant farmworkers, in particular the ones who try to escape from the actual slavery conditions of company store economics, theft of wages, violence and retribution. Read more on the original article that inspired the book.
What Does this Have to Do With Me?
If you buy a supermarket tomato from October through June chances aren’t just good, they’re assured, you have bought Florida tomatoes. And you ask why should I care? Not only for your own personal health and nutrition, but eating a ‘slave’ tomato can’t be good for your digestion. Who is to blame for all this? The American passion for tomatoes, the perverted collusion of Florida’s agricultural authorities and the growers to allow only standardized, cosmetically perfect tomatoes to be allowed to go to market, the retailers who market said tomatoes and the lack of awareness of American consumers about these conditions.
What Does this Have to Do with Stocks?
The main companies affected are the mass market retailers like Wal-Mart, supermarket chains, fast food chains and natural foods supermarkets. The Coalition for Immokalee Workers Campaign For Fair Food has gotten Yum! Brands Inc (NYSE: YUM), McDonald’s Corp (NYSE: MCD), and Burger King Worldwide Inc (NYSE: BKW) to sign on to raises in wages, but only Whole Foods Market, Inc (NASDAQ: WFM) has agreed to only source tomatoes from farms that do not abuse workers and pay a living wage. For once, indulging your conscience is good for your portfolio as Whole Foods has outperformed major supermarket chains like Safeway and Supervalu for some time.
The Campaign for Fair Food has also targeted Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc (NYSE: CMG). With Chipotle’s recent stock performance and now accusations of hypocrisy over their Food With Integrity program, as well as past run-ins with the INS over illegal and undocumented workers, Chipotle has become a difficult stock to own. Not to mention it’s probably still overvalued here.
It’s very ironic that what was once considered a poisonous fruit in America until it was popularized by Thomas Jefferson, slaveowner, has once again become a poisonous fruit and an alleged enabler of modern day slavery. Tomato seeds of change, people, one tomato at a time.
leglamp has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Chipotle Mexican Grill, McDonald's, and Whole Foods Market. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend Burger King Worldwide, Chipotle Mexican Grill, McDonald's, Whole Foods Market, and Yum! Brands. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.If you have questions about this post or the Fool’s blog network, click here for information.