Tim Worstall of Forbes took me to task earlier this week for some opinions expressed in my book, Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Has Ruined Our Most Alluring Fruit. Read his broadside below, followed by my reply.
Mr. Worstall writes:
Here’s an extract from a new book by Barry Estabrook called Tomatoland. Essentially, it’s a rant against the awfulness of the supermarket tomato.
“The answer has nothing to do with horticulture and everything to do with money. Florida just happens to be warm enough for a tomato to survive at a time of year when the easily accessed population centers in the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, and Northeast, with their hordes of tomato-starved consumers, are frigid, their fields frozen solid under carpets of snow. But for tomatoes to survive long enough to take advantage of that huge potential market, Florida growers have to wage what amounts to total war against the elements. Forget the Hague Convention: We’re talking about chemical, biological, and scorched-earth warfare against the forces of nature.”
Well, yes, OK, perhaps a little over dramatic but we get what you mean there Barry.
And yes, it is all to do with money as Adam Smith pointed out:
“The natural advantages which one country has over another in producing particular commodities are sometimes so great that it is acknowledged by all the world to be in vain to struggle with them. By means of glasses, hotbeds, and hot walls, very good grapes can be raised in Scotland, and very good wine too can be made of them at about thirty times the expence for which at least equally good can be brought from foreign countries.”
It’s about money, yes, but not the money that can be made by growing tomatoes in Florida or wine in France. Rather, it’s about the money saved by the consumer in not growing tomatoes in Vermont in winter, nor grapes for wine in Scotland in any season. For that saving of money, saving of resources, means that we can both drink and be merry and also have a slice of beefsteak or romano on our hamburger whatever the season.
We are made richer by having this choice.
That Smith published on this 235 years ago really does make me wish that today’s authors would read a little more of what yesterday’s had to teach us. The reason we grow bad tomatoes in winter in Florida is so that we can have any tomatoes at all in winter.
And my reply:
Dear Mr. Worstall.
Let’s clear up one point right away. I did read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, but it was many long years ago in History 121: Intellectual Origins of the Contemporary West. I got a B+, as I recall.
But I wonder if you read my explanation for why Florida is such a bad place to grow commercial slicing tomatoes in the winter months. My point was that Florida has few of what Smith would call “natural advantages” for tomato production and many natural disadvantages.
The state is warm, wet, and humid, all ideal conditions for the proliferation for fungi, diseases, and pests that attack tomatoes.
Its soil (sand, really) is devoid of organic material and nutrients.
It is prone to violent swings in temperature during the winter months. In the worst cases, tomato plants freeze and die. Short of that, they often struggle to grow and produce fruit.
To counter these natural disadvantages, Florida tomato growers have to apply enormous quantities of pesticides and fertilizers to their fields. This typically costs $2,000 per acre.
Compare Florida and California (a state blessed with “natural advantages” such as low humidity and rich soil). Both states grow roughly the same acreage of fresh market tomatoes per year, yet Florida farmers apply eight times more insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides than their counterparts in California.
Finally, Florida winter tomatoes are cost competitive with imported tomatoes from Mexico (which also has “natural advantages”) only because Mexican producers agreed to not sell tomatoes into the United States below a set price to avoid possible dumping charges.
And certainly you know how Adam Smith felt about the inefficiencies of tariffs and other restraints on the free market.
As for being made the richer for out-of-season beefsteaks on our burgers, whether grown in Florida or Vermont, I’ll let January supermarket tomatoes speak for themselves.
And one more from Mr. Worstall, to whom I will give the last word:
Update: Barry Estabrook responds on Twitter:
“@tomphilpott My pt. was that growing tomatoes in FL was exactly like Smith’s wine in Scotland example–possible with huge, expensive inputs”
OK, that’s fine,I’m entirely willing to agree that growing tomatoes in Florida requires large inputs. But that isn’t the point at all that either Smith or I were making. Which is, rather, does growing tomatoes in Florida require more or fewer inputs than trying to grow them in winter in Vermont?
We even have a rough and ready method of measuring this: price. Prices will reflect the costs of the inputs into a process. If input prices are above the price that can be gained for the production the producer will be losing money and thus stop producing. Yes, there are always externalities to consider but let’s not go to that level of abstraction just yet. So, by our rough and ready measure: do hothouse raised tomatoes from Vermont cost more or less than field raised from Florida in winter?
Well, as far as I know, there are no Vermont raised winter hothouse tomatoes which is something of an indication that they would be grossly more expensive than the Florida version. So much more expensive that no one even tries it.
There are no Scottish ones either, they all come from Spain.
So to encapsulate my (and Smith’s) argument, sure, tomatoes from Florida require a lot of resources. But compared to what?
If Estabrook wants to move the argument to: but we shouldn’t expend such resources just to have tomatoes in winter then fine. His argument is therefore that we should have no tomatoes in winter. That’s probably a tough argument for him to win but good luck with it.
However, it does lead to another question. What should we do with these resources which we’re now not using to grow winter tomatoes in Florida? If we do nothing with that land, nothing with that labour and other inputs, then they’re not in fact valuable inputs are they? Which rather collapses the argument that we shouldn’t be using valuable inputs to grow tomatoes in winter.
There is the final point that summer grown tomatoes can be a gustatory joy while winter grown and forced can taste like dreck. But then neither Estabrook nor I could be considered to be good little liberals if we were to try and force our tastes onto other people.