Last week I bought a tomato. Now, this may not seem out of the ordinary to many of you. It is still summer, and tomato season is supposedly in full swing. I was, however, very upset about this purchase. The fact is I live on an organic farm, with over three long rows of tomato plants yielding tomatoes of all shapes, sizes and varieties.
Over the last few months I have become positively tomato-addicted. My favorites are the big yellow heirlooms with bright pink juicy centers.
My daily meals came to rely on tomatoes. I made everything from tomato salads, tarts, sauce, sandwiches, curry and anything else I could think to add them to.
I was spoiled with our seemingly endless crop.
Then, disaster hit. A few weeks of the hottest, most humid weather we’ve had in a long time, mixed with no rain created the perfect climate for full fledged insect colonies to descend on our poor defenseless garden.
Our squash, melons, cucumbers, swiss chard, and tomatoes, among others were devastated. Needless to say it was a terrible blow, and we weren’t sure how to react. We salvaged what we had left of our crops, mostly various peppers, onions, and a few greens to dole out to our CSA shareholders. We started pulling out the dead plants and re-tilling and raking the beds to try and plant some quick fall crops. But there were no more tomatoes.
Luckily for me, a farm down the road had managed to salvage a few more than we had and were selling what they said was “the very last” of their own attacked tomatoes. I bought a couple of small, very ripe tomatoes to get my fix for the day. As a person currently craving tomatoes I have a couple of options. I can:
- go to the grocery store and buy whatever they have which is usually conventionally grown, or organic but shipped from California to Virginia.
- Wait until Saturday to scavenge the various farmers markets for their remaining tomatoes
- Go without.
It’s option 3 that I am particularly concerned with. It’s just not something I’m used to, and the truth is, most of America isn’t used to it either. Just for a moment lets forget the fact that I have a particular taste for in-season heirloom tomatoes, if I was willing to just settle for any tomato or even any tomato product, my choices would increase dramatically.
For someone planning on making a homemade spaghetti sauce recipe they just found for dinner one particular night, the notion that there may not be tomatoes would never enter their mind. No matter what the season, draught and humidity or no, the shelves at the grocery stores always have tomatoes. They also always have multiple varieties of canned tomatoes: whole, halved, diced, with or without salt, Italian flavored, with jalapenos, etc.
Want to make tomato soup? A favorite of mine all year round, I keep a steady supply of tomato paste on hand for whenever the mood strikes. Tomato paste is about 50 cents a can, about $1 a can for organic. Tomatoes, in certain form are so accessable people forget what a commodity they are. I have been rudely reminded.
But what happens if modern agriculture the way it exists now does collapse? All of us who are loyal patrons of organic, local food, support the sustainable food movement and sign petitions against the huge industrialized companies. We want to live in a world where all of our food is ideally local and organic, but then, what happens when there are no tomatoes? In a Time Magazine article in 2008, Bryan Walsh asserts that we would need 40 million organic farmers to feed the world, whereas there are currently only one million.
Can we increase the number of organic farmers in the world by 39 million? How would that change our world? We know WHY we want to eat this way: We want to eat real food. Food that is as close to the earth and it’s original form as possible.
As Nina Planck said in her book Real Food: What to Eat and Why, “Real foods are traditional.” Hydrogenated vegetable oil made solid and dyed yellow is not as good for your body as butter. How could it be?
The sustainable movement has many champions, among them, Carlo Petrini. In his book “Slow Food Nation,” Petrini claims, “All this development…has proved to have great limitations and has created a number of situations…which are unsustainable.” He goes on to cite pollution, soil death, scarring of the landscape, reduction of nonrenewable energy sources, and loss of variety of produce and livestock as results of industrialized agriculture.
It’s a controversial issue. Can sustainable, organic agriculture feed us all? Even the urban and low income areas? Petrini holds that “only through a new sustainable agriculture that accepts both old traditions and modern technologies, can we begin to have hopes for a better future.” He advocates networks of what he calls “gastronomes,” or people with passion for food. In essence he describes a network of local food distributors that work together to feed a community.
I think a portion integrating a system such as this comes down to planning. And that is where, I think it is going to hurt for most Americans used to convenience. Want tomato soup? If (like me) you didn’t think to can your own tomatoes because you thought you had another month of tomato excess, then you’d have to either seek out others who have and pay the price, or go without.
Want a burger for dinner? You needed to have sought out your cow farmer in advance and set up a time to buy in bulk. Craving bread? Buy your wheat in season in large amounts and grind your own flour. Set up a sourdough starter in your fridge. All these things are hard, extremely hard for those used to popping into a grocery store for a $4 pound of ground beef and a $3 pre-sliced loaf of bread.
And I’m not saying change all your ways. I can’t say that I won’t find myself in the grocery store next month snatching some tomato paste. I’m just asking you to give it some thought. We need to think about what going local on a large scale would do to our everyday lives, and how we could accommodate it.
We’re all busy, but taking small steps towards depending on sources we can put faces on is a positive step. What do you think? Can sustainable small farms feed people on a large scale? What are your feelings on a month with no tomatoes?
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