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Tangled Routes: Women, Work, and Globalization on the Tomato Trail

During the Spring of 2008, I ended up reading the nbook, Tangled Routes: Women, Work, and Globalization on the Tomato Trail

by Deborah Barndt.

Deborah Barndt’s research helped me think more in depth about my own research on vegan foodways and its “animal rights” and “cruelty-free” roots. I have met a lot of people who tell me that “going vegan” means that there is “less cruelty” involved in getting food to “our” plates in the USA. Though there is an element to truth to this, as there is less environmental pollution and land degradation connected to plant-based diets (Jacobson 2006), it is more complex than this. If you eat tomatoes (which are a vegan food), where do they come from? What human beings are possibly being exploited, poisoned and/or made to suffer so North Americans can have their tomato dishes (this includes omnivorous, vegan, and vegetarian)?

In Barndt’s book, a researcher such as myself can see that a plant-based diet that uses tomatoes doesn’t necessarily mean “cruelty free” for certain human beings located on the production end. She focuses on the mostly poor women of color in this book; many work in the most environmentally toxic and inhumane conditions. However, to understand the implications of North Americans having access to fresh tomatoes and products made from tomatoes, she starts with an intensive multi-layered genealogy of the tomato’s roots in Mexico. She does this through what I would consider a postcolonial feminist analysis that interrogates how colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism destroyed the culture and bio-diversity of the indigenous people’s land-base and livelihood. Barndt states that the indigenous population collectively believed in a holistic and non-commodifying philosophy of nature, while the European philosophical and economic belief system naturalized the transformation of natural resources into a commodity for a capitalist moral economy (Barndt 2008). Over time, and since the era of European colonialism, the European colonizers forcibly removed the indigenous people of “Mexico” from their land, leaving most of them with only one option for survival: working for unlivable wages and relying on foods that are imported from the USA for sustenance.

NAFTA is a problem for Barndt, who focuses her environmental justice scholarship on women (and children and men), who, are in some way, shape, or form, exploited by NAFTA and North America’s unmindful need for tomatoes all year round. She also focuses on the fact that structural racism and sexism are integral to maintaining this system of “cheap labor” and “cheap tomatoes.” For example, mestizos are paid nearly ten times more than indigenous people because the national narrative of Mexico has defined indigenous people as “inferior” and “subhuman”, in relation to mestizos. Such a “rationale” legitimizes why it is “acceptable”, in the government and industry’s eyes, that the indigenous tomato pickers can be given poverty-level wages and literally have to reside in shanty communities– many with with no clean running water, electricity, and other basic human needs. Though I’m already aware of these human rights violations, Barndt’s analysis of how the tomato and indigenous tomato pickers of Mexico ended up in such a [neo]colonial situation, connects me back to my own interest in vegan foodways- particularly since so many vegan animal rights activists seem determined to consume products that don’t come from animals (“cruelty-free”), yet they often don’t engage on whether or not their plant-based vegan foods are “human cruelty-free.” As I mentioned earlier, Barndt does not bring the vegan foods implication into her research at all. As a matter of fact, this book has nothing to do with vegetarianism, veganism, or “cruelty free” consumption movement in the USA. However, since I engage in critical food studies (in regards to alternative foods movement in the USA, such as veganism, raw foodism, organic)  I think this book is crucial in explaining to a lot of USA vegan and vegetarians why they need to critically understand the mainstream concept of “cruelty free” within vegan products. For example, their food may be “non-human animal cruelty free”, but how many people suffered and may be even died so tomatoes can make it into their meal? Into their vegan ketchup?

Barndt shows, by following the tomato trail from Mexico to the USA and Canada, how structural racism and sexism, NAFTA, and capitalism embedded within lingering colonial mentality, provide so many people in the USA and Canada with tomatoes, all year round. This includes certain animal rights vegan and vegetarian USA people who believe that as long as they’re eating “animal-free” diets, they are being “ethical” and “cruelty-free”. I put “ethically” in quotations because I do not believe ‘ethical’ is objective. Mant feminist theorists argue that this depends on one’s situated knowledge. Barndt writes that Donna Haraway “sees all knowledge as situated, embodied, embedded in the power relations of particular place, and therefore always partial” (Haraway in Barndt 2008, 77). The question for my research that came to mind from reading Barndt was: How can this tomato trail be “ethical” if you do not know how many people have been exploited and abused for the USAmerican’s “ethical” vegan/vegetarian diet? Or any diet involving tomatoes?

I’m sure it’s not just the tomato, as the same probably goes for most of the plant foods that make it into “vegan” and “vegetarian” products. Barndt’s book has given me a stronger argument for why “even vegans who do it for animal rights/cruelty-free activism” must consider how structural racism and sexism allow them cheap access to foods to practice their “ethical” diet in the USA. I say “even vegans” because I have heard vegans and animal rights activists argue that their consumption philosophy has NOTHING to do with benefiting from structural racism, and, “at the end of the day, it’s just about animal rights.” But Barndt notes that discrimination against indigenous Mexicans ensures a steady supply of cheap tomatoes/tomato products for the USA (Barndt 2008).

I know there are some who have access to local, organic, fair labor tomatoes. But, this is a small minority in the USA and Barndt makes note of this. This book got me revisiting my thoughts on the vegan “cruelty-free” products that I see, sold in the supermarkets. I would love to understand why it’s “okay” that Soy Delicious vegan ice cream, with non-fair trade chocolate in it, is categorized as “cruelty free” indulgence. I’m wondering if the enslaved children on the Ivory Coast who pick cocoa, think that what they’re doing is “cruelty” free (Chanthavong 2006). I wonder if the child, in Uzbekistan, enslaved to pick the world’s cotton (Grabka 2007; Williams 2007), thinks cotton is “cruelty-free”. Most likely not, since their situated knowledge is from that of production/forced labor p.o.v. and not that of the USA privileged consumer who is distanced and disconnected from the trail of all their goods. Barndt writes that it is necessary for the North American consumer to be distanced and disconnected from where their food comes from. Much like the tomato, cotton is consumed by vegans in the USA because it is not an animal product (like wool, leather, fur, etc.). Barndt’s book is an excellent model for those to do a genealogy of where their “cruelty-free” products come from.

I would like for my research address the many contradictions of “cruelty-free” consumption within the mainstream animal rights and vegan movement in the USA- particularly since I have rarely heard mainstream discussions about the exploited labor that goes into tomato products and even cotton for the vegan consumer.

Works Cited

Barndt, Deborah. Tangled Routes : Women, Work, and Globalization on the Tomato Trail. 2nd ed. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Pub., 2008.

Chanthavong, Samlanchith. “Chocolate and Slavery: Child Labor in Cote D’ivoire.” TED Case Studies.664 (2002). .

Grabka, Thomas. “The Cost of Uzbek White Gold.” Satya Magazine March 2007: 12-13.

Jacobson, Michael F., and The Staff of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Six Arguments for a Greener Diet. Washington, D.C.: CSPI, 2006.

Williams, Juliette. “The Fabric of Our Lives: The Satya Interview with Juliette Williams.” Satya Magazine. March 2007: 8-11.

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