BriarPatch Co-op in Grass Valley, Calif. Photo courtesy of Jon Steinman.

An excerpt from Grocery Story by Jon Steinman

I remember standing in a tomato field of DiMare Fresh, one of North America’s largest conventional growers and distributors of “fresh” tomatoes. It was here where I really learned how subjective one’s definition of “fresh” could be.

If “fresh” is harvesting a rock-hard, pale green tomato and placing it in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room with just the right amount of ethylene gas piped in to affect ripening, then “yes,” these tomatoes were super “fresh”! If you’ve ever wondered why, rather than being a luscious ruby red, the internal flesh of your tomato is a pale pink, maybe even white — that’s why — the tomato has never had a chance to fully ripen, the ethylene gas having never penetrated the interior of the fruit. Not surprisingly, these “factory” tomatoes are almost completely devoid of flavor.

Long-distance transportation requirements were not the only influence on the genetics of the modern tomato. To meet the high-volume, low-cost demands of the emerging grocery giants of the 1940s, growers looked to cut costs and expedite harvesting.

Harvesting a field tomato when dark-green presented a unique challenge — visibility. A green tomato is the same color as the leaves, making it more difficult to notice by the people picking the fruit. Enter the plant breeders and their capacity to select genetics that would yield a highly visible, light-green tomato and promote even ripening throughout the individual fruit. It was a remarkable achievement … until seventy years later, when it was discovered that the dark green color was responsible for flavor. It was also revealed that by removing the fruit from the plant prior to the tomato being fully ripe, flavor was even further reduced. The leaves of a fruit-producing plant or tree are the sugar-producing factories of the fruit itself. Remove the tomato from the plant before it’s ripe and sugar production comes to a halt … and sugar equals flavor. Eaters have effectively handed the keys to flavor over to the most influential grocers.Text reads "Food co-op finder, 330 community owned grocery stores at your fingertips, get the app. Created by Jon Steinman, author of Grocery Story: the promise of food co-ops in the age of grocery giants."

The long-term ripple effects of the grocery giants’ requirements are fascinating. Losses in flavor, phytochemicals, and nutrients have accompanied the genetic development of most fruits, vegetables, grains, and animal products destined for the grocery store shelves. Also lost has been the assurance of safe food.

Meeting the cosmetic demands of the grocery giants has been linked to increases in the use of pesticides. As one carrot grower puts it, “We use more pesticides than we’d like to try to meet the cosmetic standards set.” Another grower: “They want a perfect product that will keep for a week … but trying to make quality last a week logically leads to more pesticides.”

While at times it may seem we eaters are powerless, we mustn’t be fooled — we are immensely powerful. Our sheer numbers dwarf the number of retailers.

Just as their consolidation has granted them seemingly limitless powers, that same eroding of diversity upon which they draw strength also makes them all the more vulnerable to the whims of our almighty appetites. Often forgotten in the equation of the food economy is the one sector that likely invests the most time and energy into the planning, acquisition, transportation, and preparation of food — EATERS. And not just any eaters — organized, consolidated eaters.

Copyright @ Jon Steinman, 2019, Grocery Story: The Promise of Food Co-ops in the Age of Grocery Giants

This excerpt was originally published in the fall issue of The Cultivator, Cornucopia’s quarterly newsletter. Donate today, and we’ll mail you the summer issue, filled with stories you won’t find anywhere else.

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