Join the Great Tomato Debate: Tim Worstall of Forbes and Adam Smith vs. Me


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.

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  1. Andrew Naber says:

    Worstall ends the argument with taste? The point shouldn’t be about taste, it should be about what is viable as a long-term solution. He is not understanding the real issue of whether or not we should be eating tomatoes in Vermont in the winter. Nor does he even take a minute to realize that what was relevant in 1776 may not be relevant today. What is sad is in both his replies he never even hints that just maybe this isn’t the best way to do things and that there maybe a better way.

  2. Tim Worstall says:

    “Nor does he even take a minute to realize that what was relevant in 1776 may not be relevant today.”

    Oooh, I dunno, Newton’s equations of 1687 are still a pretty good guide to whether an apple falls up or down out of a tree. Sometimes dead people did in fact get things right you know.

  3. Lisa says:

    My lasting feelings after reading “Tomatoland” concerned not the matter of taste or the matter of cost and profit margins, but the enormous human cost of the production of Tomatoes in the inhospitable state of Florida. I think of the child Carlito, whose mother was sprayed with toxic chemicals while working in the fields. Born with no arms and no legs, he and his family will suffer tremendously the rest of their lives. I think of Linda Lee and her neighbors in the Lake Apopka region who suffer from major illnesses and disabilities as the result of living near a lake that is horribly polluted as the result of run-off of toxic chemicals from the fields. (She also at one time worked in those fields.) I think about the appalling abuse of undocumented migrant workers over the years. In Arizona immigrants whether documented or undoumented are being subjected to intimidation, racial profiling and false arrest under the Tea Party favorite, Governor Jan Brewer. Yet the Tea Party favorite, Governor Rick Scott in Florida, seems to stand with the large growers, as did his predecessors, in turning a blind eye to the years of cruelty and violations of basic human and civil rights that are taking place right in front of them. Unlike Mr. Worstall and the overall perspective of Forbes Magazine, many of us do care about human well-being and the overall costs to our environment. It’s not a matter of taste or how much profit the practice generates for big agriculture. It’s about people.

  4. Sam Fromartz says:

    I find a few things curious about Worstall’s argument. I would agree with him that we are buying the tomatoes based on price, since that is the only ‘information’ available to most consumers about the product.

    However, one of the points of your book, it seems, is to add more ‘information’ to the market, in this case, the awareness of externalities that Worstall and more importantly the tomato growers, would like to ignore, such as poising pregnant farmworkers with pesticides and using slave labor (as defined by the US Attorney for the region).

    The market (ie, us) has imperfect information about this product, because the nature of the way it is produced remains largely unknown. Similar examples come from China, where consumers would probably avoid toxic milk that has killed babies if they had better information about the product — ie, that it is fraudulent and tainted.

    Were we to have more information about this product — as many of us now do, thanks to your book — we might conclude we would never want this tomato whatever the cost. Or that a product such as this has no value to us. Not everyone, to be sure, but some. In the 19th century, similar arguments were made about slave labor and sugar production in the West Indies though it did take some time to outlaw that trade (in people, that is) despite the obvious demand and cost advantage of slaves to that production regime.

  5. After reading a proof of Tomatoland back in March, I switched to organic greenhouse tomatoes — from the frozen wasteland of Ontario, my home province that shares a few of Vermont’s weather characteristics. While I seldom bought Florida tomatoes because of taste, the book forced me to address social and environmental issues. (Perhaps I’m eating on borrowed time as Barry didn’t address the greenhouse industry. Maybe there are reasons to avoid these imperfect tomatoes too.) Luckily the real thing is just a few more weeks away.

    I must say that the Worstall review/essay certainly highlights the forces that keep food quality where it is. Interesting to see how the other half thinks — and eats.

  6. Deb Rankine says:

    These things I know…

    ~ that 21st-century hybrid tomatoes — in season or not — are tasteless.
    ~ that my pre-1960’s taste DNA remembers fondly the taste of a real tomato.
    ~ that in a free market society consumers get the final word. I say refrain from buying tomatoes out-of-season. Strength in numbers will prevail. It’ll send a loud and clear message to all concerned to stop fucking with our fruit. Who knows? We might just get what’s coming to us. A tomato that tastes like a tomato.

  7. Price perhaps *should* reflect the price of inputs, but it doesn’t. This is because the “externalities” Mr Worstall refers to as “abstract” are in fact very real, it’s just that most consumers don’t have to pay for them or experience them.

    Also I find it hilarious that Mr Worstall suggests the fields would be empty. It’s called growing seasonally. People have done it for quite some time. Bit rich for him to bring up history lessons really.

  8. Ed says:

    Also I remember an American winebuyer coming to a friend of mine who makes fantastic wine (yes just the grapes) and sells that for a very reasonable (low) price. The guy was overenthusiastic, came to visit the vineyard and immediately started telling my friend he really had to produce more and started pointing to all the places where he could put more grapes….. Had he been a bit more knowledgeable he would have known that grapes will not do very well in those places.
    Tip to Mr Worstall you might want to have a peek in Chandran Nair latest book.

  9. Rodney North says:

    I can think of at least one analytical approach that could help close (tho not eliminate) the apparent gap between Barry and Mr. Worstall – and that regards the equal and consistent application of law and the role of market failures.

    One reason FL tomatos can be price competitive is because so many laws and regulations – large and small – are routinely violated. And any free market advocate will agree that healthy, efficient markets require the rule of law. So were we to begin to enforce the laws regarding, say, workplace safety and labor rights then we would simultanously address some of grevious social issues AND better enable the market to do its magic regarding pricing and resource allocation.

    Also, there is the problem of market failure in the FL tomoto biz. To cite just one example – the “input” of labor is probably being mis-allocated (from a pure free market perspective) because it is not actually free to find its best use and to seek its highest return. As they say in the econ textbooks there are in this case ‘rent seekers’ who are artificially obstructing others from ‘freely entering or exiting’ certain markets. As Barry details the tomato laborers are very constrained in their choices of TO WHOM to sell their labor and the conditions under which they sell their labor. All of that makes their labor artificially cheap – really cheap – and that in turns distorts the whole economic calculus of the tomato growers and by extension everyone involved further up the tomato supply chain. A similar argument could be made about the use of the dangerous pesticides and the use of the farm land in question. I suspect that these inputs, too, are artifically cheap and therefore are likely not being put to their best economic use.

    As a long time Fair Trader here at Equal Exchange I personally think Barry’s moral and environmental arguments ought to suffice, but maybe it can help to know that there are also some economic arguments that bolster his position.

  10. A lot of raging about the free market and cost of production going on here. Clearly, tomatoes are grown in Florida during the winter months to feed the population-choked cities of the mid-atlantic and northeast. That much is undeniable. The inputs to do so are expensive and result in a costly product in the market.

    But as we continue to move away from an agricultural-based society, a practical knowledge of food is being lost. I do not buy raspberries or strawberries or tomatoes in the supermarket during the winter months because they are as tasteless as cardboard, require tons of carbon to transport and most definitely are not worth the inflated prices. When they are out of season, they are off my plate, the way it was for centuries. Canned tomatoes are just fine for making sauce – I’ll live without the tomato slice on my sandwich until summer.

    I grow a ton of organic produce in my garden every year which my family and I devour spring, summer and fall. The fresh tomatoes, pears, carrots, peppers, corn, etc. are delicious and completely free of chemicals. When pesticides, insecticides and fungicides are required in large amounts to insure a crop’s success, those chemicals are embedded in the crop from seedling to table. The consequence of convenience is the bioaccumulation of these chemical residues in our fatty tissues, compromising our health.

    Is a tomato on Valentine’s Day worth the trade-off?

  11. Rick Weller says:

    I am continually surprised at the lack of environmental concern that is shown as industry attempts to supply products they believe will feed society’s need for instant gratification.

    Do we really want to have “fresh” tomatoes available all year around? Of course we do but perhaps not at the expense required.

    I hope (naively?) that as more light is shed on these commercial practices and their significant impact on our environment, water supplies and nutrition, consumers will respond by leaving these products on the shelves.

  12. Frank Enders says:

    What I heard of the interview on PBS trying to sell the new tomato book by Mr. Estabrook had several errors.
    What I read above of the “debate” on free market and growing tomatoes also has errors.

    I do not look at my e-mail, since I am so far behind on my work here, on what could be called an industrial farm,

    What I can contribute to the understanding of tomato growing is as follows:
    I grew tomatoes in greenhouses and in the field on a small scale for about 8 years, selling them at local farmers’ markets and at the side of the roads. I earned $3.40/hour, about 10 years ago. My wife complained that I was selling to people who were richer than we were, and I never could get my price up high enough to make a decent wage. Maybe my fault for not being hard enough. I received many complilments on the tomatoes, such as “best I ever tasted” or “better than homegrolwn”.
    (1) My competition in the supermarkets (winter, early spring) was from Canada, where there has to be some sort of subsidy for them to make money at $1.50 per pound retail in the suupermnarkets. The amount of greenhouse space in Ontario is unbelievable, compared to that in the US. Perhaps Canada views this as food security. Perhaps hydroelectric power makes electricity unbelievably cheap.
    (2) Supermarkets were uninterested in the facts that they got a product from me which had insignificant spoilage (no pesticides, did use nonorganic fertilizers) or even a better price (than another local “hydroponic” grower. There was relentless pressure to sell to them for less (not from WalMart, the current villain). Even though the product flew off the shelves, I could not get a price to have a decent profit.
    (3) Many other local growers of tomatoes in the winter came and went, as I did.
    (4) Potassium is the key to a tasty tomato; plant analysis helps, and the varieties differ in how they use nutrients and taste.
    (5) When tomato spotted wilt virus moved north (originated in Australia, and imported by our modern society’s mobility, as any number of plagues which help prevent local and sustainable), I was financially devastated, and the resistant variety was really tasteless, as provided by those breeders decried by Mr. Estabrook.
    (6) The “slavery” practiced in modern agriculture has as its victims not only the imported laborers, but also native small-scale farmers. But, we are those “uneducated” lowest-paid Americans whose wages are “only” being reduced by some 7%, according to those worthless studies by overpaid “researchers”.
    (7) South Florida used to have soil, but the organic matter was reduced or removed by exposing it to oxidation by relentless plowing. You can actually see where the fields have become lower than the surrounding areas in which the organic material was not removed; there are actual scientific descriptions of this, and much of the remaining sandy soil was produced by breaking up the limestone base by plowing.

    So, there you have it. “Free trade.” “Immigration.” “Modern technology.” And we say other countries are “failed states”. And, if you tell the truth, you look hysterical, extreme or sensationist. As we day about p;olitics. We couldn’t make up crap like this. It is hysterically funny, if we refuse to go down the tragically depressing path in our thinking.

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