About Tomatoes like Red-skinned Water Balls and Illegal Immigrants...

Yes, tomatoes that look marvellously red and sun-ripened in the middle of winter: those are the wonders of modern agriculture for you!

Last night, I watched a French TV newscast (France 2) reporting on the invasion of Spanish tomatoes in French supermarkets, all the way up to Paris - coming in by the million every month of the year. The TV crew had gone down to the South of Spain to investigate the production area around Almeria. A fantastic landscape of plastic greenhouses, bulging sheets of white plastic endlessly rolling over the hills. And under these sheets (that can be conveniently opened or shut according to temperature), there are rows upon rows of tall tomato plants. They grow on gravel and are fed water by the most sophisticated drip irrigation techniques. And a lot of water is used for each plant: there was mention of 3 liters per day. New tomatoes ripen every morning and are picked by crews of East European and African labourers. Then they are packed in nice looking plastic film boxes and trucked out across Europe.

I think Italy (where I live) must be the only place in Europe that's not getting Spanish tomatoes (and maybe Greece too). The Italians eat their own locally produced tomatoes, and they taste pretty good too - even in winter. They're not about to start eating Spanish tomatoes.

Yes, because the Spanish tomatoes taste like...water! I know because I've eaten them when I was in France. But it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. After all, water is what they are, right? They grow on gravel and water, full stop. Under the circumstances, you can't expect them to taste like tomatoes. Lucky for you that they look nice and red!

The TV crew interviewed some French customers in the supermarkets who were buying those tomatoes and asked them how they liked them. They were met with embarrassed shrugs and one lady complained they tasted of nothing. When asked why they bought them, the answers ranged from "they're here, so why not?" to "they're cheap". And so they are. At €2.50 per kilo, it's barely above the summer price. Not bad.

But this TV crew was determined to scratch underneath the surface: how cheap really and why?

Well, it turned out the farm gate price was around 70 cents. So by the time it hits the supermarkets, the price is multiplied by 3 or 4. Don't be surprised. That's the kind of margins our dear marketing chains and distributors use and live on (and grow fat on). What else?

The next question is an obvious one. How come tomato producers can turn their products out at such low, low prices? Easy: they use cheap labour, people who come from outside the European Union. The TV crew interviewed a couple of them, illegal immigrants from Mali. Nice chaps, really, and obviously eager to work. They lived in a run-down house, clearly the cheapest lodgings they could find. And no wonder: they said they were paid €700 a month, and what with the rent, the cost of food and the electricity bills, that didn't leave much to send back home to their families in Mali. But better than nothing. These guys weren't about to give up their job...

All this makes me very sad. This is the exact reverse of a win-win situation. It's a dramatic lose-lose situation. Think of it:

a. the tomatoes are lousy, there's no gain for the European consumers who're actually paying for water packed in red tomato skins at 3 or 4 times the price of mineral water;

b. the jobs created by this tomato industry go to a kind of labour that is scandalously exploited. And as I write about this I have a hard time containing my indignation. A monthly salary of €700, paid directly to an illegal immigrant who is, by definition, beyond any health care benefits and cannot claim any social protection of any kind, well...it's more than unfair, it's pitiful, it's absurd, it's downright unethical. The situation cries out for revenge!

But it's not something confined to Spain. The same thing regularly happens in Italy. Most recently, it was early January 2010, we watched street fighting in the little town of Rosario in Calabria (reportedly some 15,000 Italians pitted against 3,000 immigrants). At the heart of the problem, there was this particular group of African workers living in an abandoned factory, with apparently the local mafia "protection", giving them a roof and work. The Italian army had to cart them off in buses for their own safety to protect them from the wrath of the local population. Meanwhile all agricultural production in the area came to a stop. There was no one left to pick off the fruits from the trees (the Italians certainly wouldn't) . Who knows where these immigrants are now and what they're doing...

I don't know whether the mafia is always behind every one of these gruesome episodes of Exploitation of Man by Man. Perhaps they are, especially in places where they control much of the economy. And that's not just in Southern Italy by the way - there are lots of places like that, just about everywhere in the developing world, including of course the famous BRIC countries.

Bottomline, one thing is certain: all these illegal immigrants are an easy prey to ruthless entrepreneurs. And these modern agricultural producers who exploit them have nothing to do with your vision of the good old peasants close to the earth, the righteous defenders of traditions and values.

No, these guys are out there to make money. And if there's a bunch of foreigners who have no friends locally, can't speak the language and in fact have no rights to be there but they are willing (nay, they need) to work, then why not let them? It's to everyone's advantage, right?

That's good old Adam Smith's Invisible Hand at work for you! And what damage it does, untold damage in terms of human suffering.

This is why I really get mad when I see piles of tasteless red tomatoes in supermarkets. It's not just a matter of taste...It's a matter of ethics!

And can't we do something more constructive with all these poor guys who flock to the coasts of Europe in the hope of finding work? There really are two kinds of illegal immigrants. I think those who want to work deserve our respect and support. Those who don't should be kicked out.

One should make the distinction. Don't you agree?

And if we are to show respect and support for those willing to work, then we have to be ready to do something constructive about it. In particular, European governments should put in place institutional arrangements whereby low-skilled jobs are systematically identified and put in a database made available to immigrant applicants with the appropriate profile. Actually there are lots of jobs like that, and not just housemaid jobs. I remember talking to a baker in Rome who was desperate - his bread was fabulous, mainly because he did it the old-fashioned way, getting up in the middle of the night to knead the dough. But he couldn't find anybody - I mean a strong young Italian - willing to come in the middle of the night and learn the tricks of bread-making. At the time, I investigated the question a little further and discovered there were some 4,000 jobs of the kind just in the Lazio region, that weren't covered. Nobody wants to get up in the middle of the night to bake bread...but if an immigrant is willing, why not give it to him?

Politically, it might be hard to swing, what with trade unions always preventing any changes to the labour market structures. But the unions should be told that they are defending jobs that no West European citizen wants. They've all attended school - many even the university - and low-skilled jobs are below their dignity, right?

So why stop the immigrants who are willing to take them? Granted, you need to have a system in place to separate the grain from the chaff - the immigrant willing to work from the one who isn't -. But once you do, it seems to me you shouldn't be so afraid of those hordes of foreigners knocking at the door. And the guy who works is a lot less likely to become a petty street criminal than the one who doesn't.

This would be a real win-win situation. Wouldn't it?