Tangled routes


Date: 2002

Author: Deborah Barndt

Type: academic book

Full reference: Barndt, D. (2002) Tangled routes: women, work and globalization on the tomato trail. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield [link]

Availability: from the publisher (paper: £24.95), (used: from US$30.30, new: from US$1.27), (used: from £21.32, new: from £6.65).

Page reference: Burke, R. C. (2011) Tangled routes. ( last acessed <insert date here>)


In her book, Tangled Routes, Barndt provides a timely account of the real costs of free trade by following the tomato and the women workers who plant, pick, sort, pack, stack, slice, and scan it. The reader comes to appreciate that the ‘routes’ of the transnational tomato, harvested in Mexico and sold to the United States and Canada, have much deeper ‘roots’ than NAFTA and the most recent round of trade talks (Source: Werner 2004, p.317)

‘Tangled Routes’ traces the tomato’s trail from a Mexican farm field to a Canadian supermarket, examines the reach of the McDonalds fast food chain and Loblaws supermarket conglomerate, tells stories of workers who serve the global food system, and of a trucker and a migrant picker in Ontario, and discusses the role and position of women within the Mexican agro export industry (Source: Beevis nd link).

The first part of the book is notable for its food romanticism ... indicated by a cartoon contrasting the small family farms of campesinos, where ‘every tomato had its own personality,’ with big plantations where tomatoes don’t know their neighbors and have ‘completely lost [their] sense of community’ (Source: Friedland 2006, p.256).

... these enormous chains, Walmarts, supermarkets, and fast food companies, are driving tomato prices as low as they can go. At the same time, the makers of chemical pesticides and fertilizers are pushing prices upwards. The only place farmers can squeeze their budgets is the workforce. They’ve been doing that steadily. Even now, a tomato picker makes the same wage he did in 1980. And every week, workers are sprayed with chemicals while they’re picking (Source: Melander-Dayton 2011 link).

We have been mapping the journey of the corporate tomato from a Mexican agribusiness to a Canadian supermarket and U.S.-based fast food restaurant as a device for examining globalization from above (the corporate agendas) and globalization from below (the stories of lowest-waged women workers in these sectors). We met Irena during this tracing of the tomato's trail, discovering a piece of the story that did not fit into any straight line or simple South-North axis. While most people are aware that our winter tomatoes are planted, picked, and packed by Mexican workers, few realize that our locally produced summer tomatoes are also brought to us by Mexican hands, borrowed for the summer as cheap labour. This is one of the less visible stories of trade within the new global economy (Source: Barndt 2002a, p.82).

Each chapter is framed by an analysis of ‘globalization-from-above’ in the form of corporate stories documenting the assembly-line production and consumption of tomatoes, and ‘globalization-from-below’ in the form of resistance at the individual and collective levels. This resistance is seen in community-based projects that provide food alternatives and the ‘broader mobilization of civil society across borders and around common visions of social justice and environmental sustainability’ (Source: Tunstall & Haley 2004 link).

With ‘Tangled Routes’, Deborah Barndt pioneers a method for demystifying the technologies of globalization with an extraordinarily well-crafted and lively ethnography of the transnational tomato chain. Along the way, we encounter not only the women working in the fields, factories and fast food outlets but also the variety of survival practices and resistances that constitute ‘globalization from below.’ These compelling stories counterpoint the spatial and social abstractions of the genetically engineered corporate tomato, its neoliberal trade regime, and its flexible workplaces. Barndt’s coherent framing of a series of situational accounts models an understanding of the underside of globalization that is instructive, empowering, and richly textured (Source: McMichael nd link).

In Tangled Routes, author Deborah Barndt uses an ecological and gendered analysis of the ‘global commodity chain’ to follow the production and consumption of the tomato, and the lives of the workers (predominately women) involved in bringing tomatoes from Mexico to Canadians. Her analysis focuses on four key themes: the production, distribution and consumption of tomatoes; the impact of the work and technology involved in bringing tomatoes to our tables; environmental and occupational health issues; and threats to biodiversity and cultural diversity (Source: Tunstall & Haley 2004 link).

Barndt develops a coherent description of the journey of the corporate tomato across space and time by means of global commodity chain analysis, augmented with formal gender analysis including ecofeminism, cultural studies, oral interviews with the workers, her own activist experience and popular education projects in which she has been involved. Marx’s concept of commodity fetishism, expanded by Leah Cohen (1997) and applied to the division of labor along the tomato trail, which distances both producers and consumers from the actual tomato, explains the alienation of indigenous workers and their disconnectedness not only from the production process but the land itself. What emerges from this combination of theory, methodological frames, and multiple collaborations is a layered narrative that is accessible at different levels of competency in the globalization field (Source: Bechtold 2007, p.437).

Borrowing Gramsci’s concept of ‘moments,’ each successive phase of agricultural production does not replace the former but rather draws from and depends on it. Every new ‘input’ links additional workers, production processes, and environmental impacts to the tomato. For example, cardboard boxes introduced for packing at the insistence of US buyers contributes to deforestation and insect infestation of Mexican tomato-growing areas. The reader learns to account for the social costs of production and the latter’s intimate link to consumption: from fuel-guzzling refrigerated transport trucks and cashiers’ carpal-tunnel to the decline of ‘commensality’ (the sharing of meals) and the homogenization of food practices in general (Source: Werner 2004, p.318).

One of the environmental activists advocating for the human rights of Indigenous migrant workers in the Mexican fields calls the tomatoes they pick the ‘fruits of injustice.’ We began to realize that not only have the tomatoes become increasingly commodified in the neoliberal industrialized food system, but the most marginalized workers are also commodities in this new trade game. In fact, tomatoes - a highly perishable, delicate fruit and one of the winners for Mexico in the NAFTA reshuffle - are often treated better than the workers (soucre: Barndt 2002a, p.82).

Inspiration / Process / Technique / Methodology

Based on extensive fieldwork in both Canada and Mexico, Barndt simplifies a very complex topic through her use of interviews, diagrams and photos, in some cases putting the camera into the hands of tomato workers themselves. To do this, she concentrates on case studies of three different kinds of multinational corporations in the global economy. Through her analysis, Barndt raises concerns about the quality of workers' lives and of the food that we eat (Source: Tunstall & Haley 2004 link).

The combination of powerful real-life images and moving interviews thoughtfully obtained and diligently assembled from a group of women geographically separated by thousands of miles and two international borders effectively details the shared process of marginalism that accompanies the evolution of global capital (Source: Bosanac 2003, p.82).

In 1994, I found a popular educational tool, “A Whirlwind Tour of Economic Integration with Your Guide, Tomasito the Tomato,” that ... trac[ed] the journey of a tomato from Mexico to Canada. The tomato story helped demystify globalization, revealing the role of corporations in creating and maintaining a global food system dependent on genetically modified seeds, pesticide packages, expropriated Indigenous land, cheap peasant labor, and environmental racism…. The tomato seemed a perfect “entrée” to a process of cross-border research and popular education around the complex phenomenon and often confusing concept of globalization. … The tomato was ripe with many possibilities: though it originated in Mexico, it has become central to the diets of all three North American countries; it can also be grown in all three, at least seasonally. … Thus began a five-year collaboration adventure in research, education and action called the Tomasita Project (Source: Barndt 2002b, p.2).

The Tomasita Project is by definition a feminist and an ecological project. First, it is a feminist act to make visible the women workers in the food system, redressing their invisibility in other studies of global agriculture and trade regimes as well as in the public consciousness. Beyond filling in the gaps left by male-dominated perspectives, this study benefits from the rich development of diverse feminist theories over the past decade. I have drawn from a wide array of fields, ranging from political economic labor studies to feminist ecological economics, from socialist feminism to feminist environmentalism, from gender and sustainable development to social ecofeminism. My own positions have also been shaped by three decades of research and activism in the U.S. and Canada, as well as in Peru, Nicaragua, and Mexico (Source: Barndt 2002a, p.84).

Working from a feminist historical materialist perspective, which sees knowledge as being built over time from experiences of complex relations, Barndt traces the tomato’s construction as a global agricultural commodity, from seed, to field, to store, to table. Often expressed in abstract technical terms, globalization can seem overwhelming; however, it is through such everyday moments and processes that individuals come to experience and understand complex phenomena (Source: Jubas 2010, p.3).

My search for the roots of this tomato story took me to Mexico. There I also found trees that expose their gnarled roots, crawling along the ground, wrapped around each other. “Tangled roots and routes” seemed a perfect metaphor for the process of analysis framing this book ... I realize that I run the risk of simplifying a multilayered and contextually shaped global food system by focusing on just one commodity (the tomato), in one context (North America), and highlighting one particular social group (women food workers). These are not only concrete entry points for exploring broader processes that move beyond the particularity of the tomato. The metaphor of tangled roots and routes reminds us that these stories are neither simple nor one-dimensional but rather complex, messy, and very rich (Source: Barndt 2002b, p.3).

The strongest and most original contribution of Tangled Routes  is its author’s creative mix of strong academic and activist work. The reader learns as much from the detailed historical analysis and theoretical approach as she does from the myriad of stories of actual feminist-activist practice. This book is one of several products of Barndt’s decade-long commitment to globalization education instituted through a multi-year, multi-disciplinary collaboration with 15 women academics from the NAFTA region. Drawing on examples from advertisement busting to transnational coalition work to a 6-week module on marketing analysis for grade-schoolers (including Barndt’s son), Tangled Routes  provides a compelling model of ways to resolve complex commitments to feminist theory and practice (Source: Werner 2004, p.318).

Discussion / Responses

There is no information on economic, labor, or capital costs or on fuel consumption – nor is there any information on the cost of carrying this high-value, short- life product by air (source: Friedland 2006, p.256).

Like most social scientists, Barndt is attached to her methodologies: the frames, filters, dichotomies, tensions and analytic-critical perspectives that inform her study. Her book has a crowded conceptual toolbox that does not so much damage the object of the analysis but sometimes draws attention away from it. This book is a call for globalization made from the workers perspective below against the dictates of globalization from above (Source: Genosko 2005, p.109).

The interlocking dimensions of power are even more complex than I was able to reveal here, however, and are constantly changing. The cases of Canadian supermarket cashiers and fast-food workers also demonstrate the growing phenomenon of flexible labour strategies with women bearing the brunt of part-time work schedules. One shift in the Mexican labour force, for example, has been toward younger and younger workers in a context of oversupply, 15-24 is the new ideal age, so a woman's career as a salaried agricultural worker may be finished before she reaches the age of 30. Deepening impoverishment in the countryside has meant that a campesino family now needs five rather than three members of the family working in order to eke out their collective subsistence (Source: Barndt 2002a, p.87).

While Tangled Routes can be best described as a complementary piece, it is not merely a supplemental text, many other works flounder in their attempt to humanize the issues so lucidly put forth by Barndt. The combination of case study analysis and photo essay provides the rich, thick data to which appropriately completed qualitative studies are best suited. Barndt is not only concerned with what her subjects know and have to share with us, but how and why they know it. This notion of a contextualising relationism allows for the construction of a truly meaningful and practical presentation that respects both reader and subject(s) (Source: Bosanac 2003, p.83).

These are the stories of resistance, of the creation of alternatives, of the building of links of solidarity that have also been invisible in both academic works as well as in the public consciousness (Source: Barndt 2002a, p.88).

If you’re looking for the poster child for everything that’s wrong with modern industrial agriculture, you can’t get any better than a supermarket tomato. Supermarket tomatoes are generally tasteless and grown at a tremendous cost to the workforce (Source: Melander-Dayton 2011 link).

Tomatoes are especially rich objects of study because they have been subject to many forms of technology based needs and consumer-driven packaging such as stickers for product look up codes, the corporate demand not to be squishy and for them to be shapely and sliceable (Source: Genosko 2005, p.109).

Who could believe that the story of a tomato’s northward journey could reveal the true heart of corporate globalization? Women, that’s who - women whose toil speeds the journey and whose stories leap off the page to touch our hearts and our consciousness. Deborah Barndt’s Tangled Routes is a wonderful and important book (Source: Barlow in Beevis nd link).

You feel immediate emotional responses to the injustices and “backwardness” of the current food issues in Mexico. As Americans, we all must feel somewhat guilty because of our current demand for food causes the urgency for supply. This urgency fuelled by economic gains, ignores those social gains which benefit us all. I for one do not feel sympathy for the workers, because sympathy is not beneficial to them or me (Source: Adams 2009 link).

The connection of women to globalization, not only through agriculture but through world production in general, is also a real plus. The photographs are wonderful, and the activist pieces at the ends of the chapters offer students some concrete examples for responding to a corporate world (Source: Peterson nd link).

The strengths of this book are its organization and clarity, its skilful interweaving of global processes and local realities, and its attention to methodology. I definitely plan to use it again in my international studies course (Source: Ranchod-Nilsson nd link).

Impacts / Outcomes

In one of our readings for our April 21th meeting, ‘Tangled Routes: Chapter 8 ‘Signs of Hope’’ (285-313), I found an interesting and optimistic approach to social and ecological issues associated with food, which illustrated the future steps necessary to develop food in a just and sustainable way (Source: Adams 2009 link).

Although disheartened [Barndt] points to the influential everyday things people are doing to resist current conditions and to create alternatives. At the core of the current social movement in Mexico and Canada, what is being done arose out of the need for education and collective/global assistance. The Mexican Institute for Community Development (IMDEC) has been a source of inspiration and a training ground for popular educators in Mexico for 40 years. An example of its importance can be seen at the Tomasita Project, where they helped popular educators discover conceptual frameworks, and tools for educating in their communities (Source: Adams 2009 link).

[Activist] Leonardo [Lamas] noted the perfect timing of the book – arriving a few months before the return of the tomato companies who fled the region four years ago when the land was wasted by a white fly plague and the refusal of the agribusinesses to let the soil lie fallow. Town activists would be better educated and organized now, he suggested, than they were ten years ago and the book could help prepare them to confront the environmental and labour practices of these export-oriented producers (Source: Barndt 2011, p.2).

The seeds of resistance once planted in fertile soil, nurtured by deepening relationships of collaborative research, harvested for popular education, community organization, and coalition-building are slowly bearing fruit and are evoking hope (Source: Barndt 2011, p.4).

Sources / Further Reading

Adams, B. (2009) Tangled routes Ch. 8 response. Food, farms & famine 19 April ( last accessed 23 June 2011)

Beevis,  C. (nd) The hunt for red tomatoes: environmental studies professor Deborah Barndt’s new book raises key questions about the hands that bring us our food. ( last accessed 21 June 2011)

Bechtold, B. (2007) Book review: Tangled routes: women, work and globalization on the tomato trail. Review of radical political economics 39(3), p.437-9 ( last accessed 21 June 2011)

Bosanac, S. (2003) Tangled routes: book review. Just Labour 3 (Fall 03), p.82-84 ( last accessed 21 June 2011)

Barndt, D. (2002a) Fruits of injustice: women in the post-NAFTA food system. Canadian Women Studies 21(4), p.82-89 ( last accessed 23 June 2011)

Barndt, D. (2002b) Tangled routes: women, work, and globalization on the tomato trail. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield

Barndt, D. (2011) Full circle tomatoes: returning stories to their source. ( last acessed on 22 June 2011)

Friedland, W. (2006) Tomatoes: a review essay. Agriculture and human values 23(2), p.253-62 ( last accessed on 21 June 2011)

Genosko, G. (2005) Tangled routes: women, work and globalization on the tomato trail. Gastronomica 5(2), p.109-110

Jubas, K. (2010) Everyday scholars: framing informal learning in terms of academic disciplines and skills. Adult education quarterly 24 August (online early), p.1-19

McMichael, P. (nd) Tangled Routes: editorial review. ( last accessed 21 June 2011)

Melander-Dayton, A. (2011) How we Ruined the Tomato. 8 July ( last accessed 22 June 2011)

Peterson, R. (nd) Praise for first edition. (^DB/CATALOG.db&eqSKUdata=0742555577 last accessed 23 June 2011)

Ranchod-Nilsson, S. (nd) Praise for first edition. (^DB/CATALOG.db&eqSKUdata=0742555577 last accessed 23 June 2011)

Tunstall, R. & Haley, E. (2004) From field to table. Alternatives Journal 30(3) ( last accessed 21 June 2011)

Werner, M. (2004) Tangled routes: women, work and globalization on the tomato trail by Deborah Barndt. Gender, place and culture 11(2), p.317-9.

Compiled by Robert Conor Burke, edited by Aidan Waller and Ian Cook (last updated June 2011). Page created for as part of the ‘Anthropologies of global connection’ course, Brown University.