When I spoke with Food Chains director Sanjay Rawal for this series, we both agreed it made sense to look at the conventionally grown tomato as our “text.” The fruit, after all, is a legible object—with a little training, you can see the ways supply-chain practices are written all across its (artificially-ripened) skin. In our conversation, he close-reads America’s grocery-store staple, exploring the implications of practices that dictate the tomato’s shape, size, color, taste, and price.
Food Chains—narrated by Forest Whitaker, executive produced by Eva Longoria—is in theaters now.
Sanjay Rawal: I grew up in the East Bay, in a very urban setting. And yet the tomato fields were always close by: In my hometown San Leandro, Del Monte had its main breeding and research station in the U.S. Up until the late '80s, Del Monte was the second-largest tomato-processing company in the world. They were pretty much a ubiquitous brand in vegetables, from bananas and beans to canned goods and tomatoes.
My father worked for Del Monte as a breeder, and sometimes in the summer he’d bring me and my friends to work with him. My earliest memories of agriculture involved riding my BMX bike up and down rows of tomato crops. Whenever you needed a snack, there was stuff on the vines. The Del Monte fruits tasted great—they were being bred for good taste, which was my father’s speciality. I never grew up with a bad-tasting tomato. It wasn’t until I got to college, and ate food-service tomatoes for the first time, when I understood that not everybody was so lucky.
My degree is in molecular biology. When I graduated from Berkeley, I moved to New York to study with an Indian spiritual teacher named Sri Chinmoy. But you can’t really leave your past behind. While Sri Chinmoy was encouraging me to do human-rights work around the world, and I traveled to maybe 40 countries, my dad started his own agricultural genetics company. Since that’s my degree, he needed my help—and I began working with him on the side. It was a mom and pop operation, but we were known for good taste. Many of the varieties of tomatoes that are grown by Del Cabo, the organic varieties that you see in Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, were developed by my dad.
But most of the tomatoes we eat aren’t bred for taste. They’re an industrial product, really—95 percent of the produce we eat in America comes from a massive supply chain with a lot of different nodes. It’s important to understand that, despite the power of the local food movement, large farmers’ markets only exist in major urban areas. Only 2 to 3 percent of our produce goes through those farmers’ market environments.
The rest of our produce, of course, goes through grocery stories—and grocery stores are built on their produce sections. The majority of profits come from the geographic perimeter of a stores: produce, meat and dairy, and now self-service hot-food bars. So the produce section is critically important. And market research shows that a produce section needs to be stocked with two things of high quality and constant quantity, year-round: bananas and tomatoes. If a market doesn’t have bananas and tomatoes, studies say, they’ll most likely lose the customer’s loyalty.