Seasonal Spotlight: Tomatoes
The most versatile fruit (no vegetable; no fruit!) is arguably tomatoes. They can be sweet, sour, orange, yellow, red, green, heirloom, or conventional. They grow in our backyards in small or large sizes, and grace our tables in salads, pasta, rice, or soup dishes. Tomatoes can be eaten fresh & raw, roasted, sautéed, juiced or grilled. I love using them as bright spots of color, dashes of acidity for balance, and bursts of flavor in a lot of dishes.
Growing up, I admit, I did not care for tomatoes, but my family did! Several times a season, large heavy orbs were rinsed, chopped and put into a large vat for making tomato juice. Canned tomatoes were made at my great aunt's or great grandmother's house and then passed to other family members for stocking their pantry. Tomato juice was chugged directly from those jars and enjoyed year round.
Now, I have come to appreciate the value of tomatoes and cook with them frequently. My kids especially love to watch the vines grow on the side of the house and anxiously await the flowers to bloom. They check daily for growth and watch for the tomatoes to turn from green to orange to fire engine red. Mid- to late- summer, I'll frequently see them juicing at the mouth from the burst of flesh and the pop of cherry tomato seeds that they have plucked out of the garden. It's a welcome sight as they are learning to love fresh ingredients and gather memories of what summer "tastes" like to them.
Tomato Super Powers:
Health: Tomatoes are a major dietary source of lycopene. Lycopene is an antioxidant which has been correlated (linked) to several health benefits like reducing the risks of heart disease or even certain cancers. This antioxidant combined with tomato's lutein and beta-carotene also helps support vision and protect eyes from cataracts and macular degeneration (blurred vision or in extreme cases, vision loss). Did you know that a single tomato can provide 40% of your daily intake needs for Vitamin C? Yep; almost half from one single tomato! Chicken soup move over, tomato bisque is where it's at! (Try my Tomato Bisque; it's heaven). Facts derived from Health.com.
Tomatoes are grown largely in industrial farmlands in California and Florida as well as (increasingly) in Mexico. These crops are monoculture. Meaning, that variety and diversity of the species of the fruit is threatened, as is the ability for the monoculture to be able to properly breed. Monocultures have historically led to intervention with genetic modification and cloning. The fields are also laden with hefty amounts of herbicides, pesticides and insecticides. In fact, in 2018, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) ranked tomatoes as #9 on their "Dirty Dozen" list of produce with the highest load for use of these man-made chemicals. EWG found that that the average commercial tomato had residue from 4 different pesticides! The "good news?" Just 3 short years later, EWG dropped tomatoes from #9 to #12 in their 2021 "Dirty Dozen" list: https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php. Why? Because organic tomatoes have increased in production. Great! (or so you think...)
It takes a farmer / field approximately 3 years to transition from a conventional farm operation (i.e. - use of commercial pesticides, herbicides and insecticides) to an organic farm. During that time, the farmer has great risk. They can no longer utilize the conventional methods of farming and must transition to the (often) higher costs of organic farming. What does that mean? The potential for lower yields at a higher cost per acre to the farmer during the transition. Usually that is not a problem for organic farmland as there is a slight premium to combat the rising costs. However, the farmer that is in transition cannot market his or her products as organic until they achieve certification. That is a long (and scary) road for many U.S. farmers. So, the decrease in pesticides on tomatoes is not necessarily from the U.S. transition to more organic farms (which is happening! But not at a rate that would impact the findings of the EWG's studies in 3 short years so dramatically; i.e. - to "drop" tomatoes from #9 to #12 on the list - three whole spots!)
What is happening then? Mexico is also supplementing our demand for tomatoes. According to the latest USDA report, the tomato trade to the U.S. is "...economically significant and makes up nearly 99.7 percent market share of total Mexican exports...Tomatoes are by far one of the greatest beneficiaries to Mexican fruit and vegetable trade (with the United States)..." What does that mean for the resources of Mexico though? Tomatoes are most sensitive to water depletion at time of transplanting, flowering and production. So...basically during the important stages to properly ensure high yield; the more flowers, the more opportunity for the number of fruit; the more water during production ensures quality of the yield and yield with no "splitting" or cracking. Diverting the water resources to the production of the crop fields is a problem for a country that comprises land mass that is officially almost all (by percentage of 85%) in a drought. In fact, EcoWatch reports that Mexico City is in its worst drought in 30 years. Yikes. Why should you "care?" Well, besides humane reasons (access to water and fresh water is imperative to quality of life), the water cycle is global! If we deplete water resources in one part of the world, we are changing they dynamics of the water cycle which in turn impacts the diversity and availability of habitat, and resources for more than just humans. It changes the availability for flora (plants) and fauna (animals) and everything in between. That's something worth our attention.
What can we "do" about it? Buy seasonally for your tomatoes; better yet, grow your own organic tomatoes! We grow large and small on the side of our house and enjoy all summer long. Yes, we supplement from the grocery, but the small diversion of the source of our tomatoes being in our own garden helps the planet. Remember, if we all do something "small," we can all accomplish something "big" together!
With love & hope for a better future for all of us - Jamie.