Ta-may-toe, Ta-mah-toe: Lessons in complexity from a fruit

Want to know where we go wrong solving single-mindedly for parking, affordability, sustainability, accessibility and all the other stuff on urban planning’s high-priority list?

Consider the tomato.  More specifically the winter tomato, as designed and manufactured in Florida.

In Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, food writer Barry Estabrook shows how things go haywire when you’re determined to dumb down complexity. As Estabrook describes it, Florida tomato growers have one big advantage, a winter growing season, and one big marketing concept: A tomato defined by factory-perfect roundness and redness.

The trouble is, to get to the round and red, the growers have to dispense with a lot of other stuff that should have some bearing on the value of tomatoes worth buying and eating. Such as: Taste and nutrition, product safety and labor issues that approximate (and sometimes equate to) slavery.

“If it were left up to the laws of botany and nature,” Estabrook writes, “Florida would be one of the last places in the world where tomatoes grow.”

That’s because the sandy soil needs an infusion of expensive, chemical fertilizers to grow non-native plants like tomatoes. And the heat and humidity favor bugs that, according to Estabrook, require some 100 different varieties of pesticides to control. Then, to get a product that can stand up to the time and distance from field to produce section, the already over-engineered tomatoes have to be harvested green and hard, then gassed to ripe-appearing color with ethylene.

Tomatoes, taking a nod from the fashion industry: "At least I look good."

What got Estabrook interested in South Florida tomato production was the experience of watching hockey-puck-like objects falling off a farm truck on a Florida highway. When he stopped to check out the spillage, he discovered tomato-like things, apparently unbruised by the experience. “A ten-foot drop followed by a sixty-mile-per-hour impact is no big deal to a modern, agribusiness tomato,” writes Estabrook.

Despite all those production strategies borrowed from manufacturing, Florida’s winter tomatoes make for risky business because of the escalating costs of chemicals, fertilizer and fuel and because of the uncertainties of weather and a marketplace increasingly crowded with imports and green house produce. Since the only cost growers can squeeze is labor, farm workers — most of them migrants and many of them illegal — pay the price in exposure to pesticides, low wages and the worst possible working conditions. Estabrook quotes one prosecutor as saying South Florida tomato fields are “ground zero for modern-day slavery.”

So besides celebrating local farmers markets and in-season produce more than ever, what can we take away from this example?

The tomato growers’ mistakes are anchored in a fundamental perception problem. What gives tomatoes value is a set of complex, interconnected variables that can be taken for granted when tomatoes are grown in hospitable climates, seasons and soil conditions and when they’re consumed short distances from the fields. Tomato taste alone, writes Estabrook, “is the distilled essence of sun, warm soil, and fine summer days.” To say nothing of the way nutrients in a real tomato plug into the nutritional needs of humans evolved over eons.

"The distilled essence of sun, warm soil, and fine summer days.” To say nothing of the way nutrients in a real tomato plug into the nutritional needs of humans evolved over eons.

By redesigning tomatoes to optimize a particular shape and hue, then contorting the growing process for the convenience of transport and just-in-time delivery, the South Florida tomato industry engineered the value out of the product, drained humanity out of the process and wed themselves to an unsustainable business model.

Sound familiar?

Compared to human settlement patterns, shelter needs and the architecture of community, tomato production is a piece of cake. Yet we’ve allowed similar approaches to dominate the “industries” of designing and building the places where we live, work and play.

To optimize distance from noxious industries, we impose zoning separated by use and break apart the connections of community. To optimize private automobile convenience, we bring highways into cities, design neighborhoods and buildings around parking and kill street life. To optimize privacy, we move living quarters to the burbs and force long daily commutes and recreation by appointment. To optimize affordability, we prioritize drive-til-you-qualify financing and isolate people with the fewest resources from employment and education. To optimize appeal to relocating businesses, we incentivize environmental risk and waive the taxes that support the quality of life that businesses list as a reason to relocate.

What’s missing is an appreciation of the way tomatoes — and other real world entities — work. Ours is a universe of constantly emerging interactions. Push on one thing, lots of other stuff starts moving around. For decision-making convenience, we yearn for simple. We are genetically programmed for simple. But we are embedded in complexity. Those who study this sort of thing talk about “complex adaptive systems” capable of self-organizing beyond our capacity to confidently predict outcomes. For instance: The weather, the movement of the global economy, the unintended consequences of American democracy.

It’s exasperating to continually confront ultimately unsolvable complexity. But it doesn’t help to isolate and optimize one component of the whole mess and pretend it provides all the answers.

Scientists have been studying strategies for better understanding and for more successfully operating within complex adaptive systems. Many are involved in the field of resilience studies, and their work has been playing an increasingly important role in planning for disaster preparedness. I talked about some of those efforts in a previous post.

Last year, at almost exactly this time, I reported on an experience in Coastal Alabama in the wake of the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The report that emerged from that effort, “A Roadmap to Resilience,” stressed the need to appreciate the complex connections between a healthy environment, society and economy. It encouraged a regional perspective that transcended geographic and political boundaries as well as the narrow interests of any one sector of society. As leaders in that Coastal Alabama effort tussled with the lessons learned from the spill and the strategies for going forward, one utility company executive offered a suggestion I’ll paraphrase.

We seem to agree that we can’t solve any single problem having to do with the environment, the health of our families and communities or the economy of our region without affecting all the others. So why don’t we define our challenges in relation to all three categories — the environment, the society and the economy? And why don’t we require whatever recommendations we come up with to demonstrate how they’ll contribute to solutions under all three headings?

Love that idea.

In Tomatoland, Estabrook didn’t leave the story of the South Florida growers with the depressing ironies of a race to the bottom. He reported on a series of innovations the industry was undertaking, including research into new hybrids that would be rich in tomato nutrients without so many chemical boosts. And he chronicled labor improvements likely to make harvesting more humane if not any less arduous.

Estabrook didn’t let anyone off the hook. Not the growers, not officials who turned a blind eye to illegal and unsafe practices and not consumers. And he encouraged not only recognition of the broader complexities, but also strategies that take them into account: “It’s a world we’ve all made, and one we can fix,” wrote Estabrook.

Pretty good all-round advice, if you ask me.

–Ben Brown

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Comments

  1. Ben, I remember when I lived in Florida being surprised the tomatoes were picked green. That couldn’t have been right!

  2. And it turned out, as Estabrook documents, that it wasn’t right.
    – Ben

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