Since its emergence in mid-century America, the organizational logic of the supermarket has gripped the planet as a whole, reorganizing populations and the microbiology of the products on sale within it. By looking at the tomato—the number one selling fruit (or vegetable) worldwide—we build an alternative model for means of food creation, distribution, and consumption within energetic and ecological boundaries.
Regular greens surround the chopping board, a selection that’s available year round: green peppers, crispy kale, juicy onions, and a couple of vibrant red tomatoes. A delicious fruit, even if the US Supreme Court disagrees, designating it a vegetable for “cultural reasons.” Who doesn’t enjoy the sensation of squeezing a perfectly ripe tomato? This heavenly action begins with picking up tomatoes at the supermarket, lifting them carefully from that pyramid of produce, their firm bodies filling up your hand.
In the kitchen, the seductive tomatoes keep luring you in. One by one, you add them to your daily meals: rinsed, dried, and then sliced. For a small fraction of a second the tomato resists, its thin skin fighting back against the knife before it punctures it, releasing some of its juicy interior. You take a piece from the chopping board and put it in your mouth but it tastes like...nothing. Or something, just not what a tomato should taste like.
This tastelessness is the result of the system that created and delivered this tomato to your cutting board. Back in the supermarket, your shiny specimen was probably exhibited in Front of Shop—a designated area for fruits and vegetables—festooned with decorations and thematic allusions to “nature,” vague as that term may be.
This area greets you when you approach the entrance, a wash of brown and green hues that create a conspicuous imitation of a farmers market filled with recently picked produce instead of an artificially lit box. This awkwardly executed illusion is not an afterthought. In fact, the layout of the supermarket is a carefully balanced system that juggles many variables and is subject to constant change. If the product is about to expire, it is made more visible. If it’s targeted at kids, it will be displayed at a low eye level. These strategies have been evolving since the inception of the first supermarket and have developed a unique and extensive terminology: grab zones, shop-in-shop, gondola ends, buy level, traffic builder, power aisle, front of shop, signpost brands...the list goes on.
The History of the Self-Serving Store
It’s hard to say exactly when and where the supermarket was born. It is commonly attributed to Piggly Wiggly, a store in Memphis, Tennessee, where self-service shopping was popularized and patented by its owner Clarence Saunders. A shrewd entrepreneur, Saunders patented multiple inventions that became pillars of the supermarket typology, such as shelving, lighting strategies, product classification, and checkout turnstiles. These innovations enabled Piggly Wiggly stores to transition from the old credit and delivery system to a cash and carry one.
Previously, shoppers would present lists to store clerks who would then fill out the orders. Accounts were periodically tallied and bills were prepared to be paid every once in a while: a natural way to manage an economy based on seasonal incomes.
During the post-war boom in the US and the transition of rural communities to urban and suburban living, these credit systems, popular with farmers, began to disappear. This change was capitalized on by Piggly Wiggly stores which adopted the cash and carry system, creating a business model that greatly reduced overheads (offsetting produce losses from theft and damage) and allowed Saunders to slash product prices, generating irresistible savings for shoppers. Saunders’ success was almost immediate. At its peak, Piggly Wiggly operated up to three thousand stores, becoming one of the largest supermarket chains in the country.
Technological innovations were frequently absorbed into the supermarket. The development of smaller, lighter refrigeration systems meant that fresh produce, poultry, and meats could be stored and sold over a longer period of time, allowing supermarkets to offer an expanded range of “fresh” products to customers. Barcodes were developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, originating in the obscure world of cryptography and perfected by an IBM engineer, George Laurer. The technology instigated a mighty leap that allowed supermarkets to track their inventory in real time and replace products before they ran out. This saved precious capital previously lost to stock inventory, and helped reduce spoilage.
The shopping cart, commonly attributed to the grocer Sylvan N. Goldman, is a principle innovation that allowed shoppers—previously limited to purchasing only what they could carry—to collect more products in these wheeled carts, increasing the purchase size of the average customer per visit. The invention soon worked in tandem with the more recent popularization of the family car, which allowed people to carry an increased number of groceries home, and to travel longer distances to reach their store of choice.
Beyond the supermarket walls, improvements in road infrastructure, the adoption of industrial machinery in the fields, and the standardization of harvesting, as well as advances in genetic modification and monoculture practices spearheaded by the Green Revolution, created the modern supermarket.
To incorporate all these outside developments the supermarket morphed into a highly technological space, the user interface to the industrial backend that fed populations all over the world. Between tall aisles, cold storage, and produce sections, the supermarket was the mediating layer between a world that had become increasingly mechanized, and shoppers who had become completely separated from the processes of food production yet demanded the clarity necessary to express their choices.
The Domino Effect
In many ways, the supermarket was a key export from the West to the rest of the world. During the Cold War, proponents of free market economics who aimed to combat the successes of communist ideology thrust the American supermarket into the spotlight. The sight of supermarket shelves laden with produce and packaged consumables became an emblem of American plenty and a mainstay of capitalist propaganda aimed at combating communist thought.
“I can think of no better way in penetrating the Iron Curtain with our philosophy of life than the supermarket,” Max Mandell Zimmerman, founder of the Supermarket Institute trade association, informed Congress in a 1957 hearing.
The aim was to prove to residents in communist countries—who suffered from long waits and daily rationing—the success of the American system of “wealth distribution.” Paradoxically, the internal structure and operations of a large supermarket chain closely resembled the top-down decision-making economy of the USSR rather than the “free market” it was promoting. It was a powerful message that resonated with populations everywhere. It utilized the everyday supermarket as a political tool, casting it as a benchmark for planetary prosperity. The banal supermarket, humble yet terrifyingly efficient, paved the way for the internationalization of American food systems, in particular the increasing power of US multinational agribusinesses and their preferred practices.
The international dimension introduced a number of innovations to the supermarket—not just technological, but legislative as well. As the wider world adopted the supermarket in principle, the arrival of foreign products and goods represented a tricky conundrum for local industries. Now infamous trade deals such as NAFTA, TTIP, and TPP, created by Western countries and foisted on poorer nations, articulated legislative guidelines for supermarkets all over the world. The typical supermarket shelf now boasted products that originated in every part of the world, produced under entirely different regulatory frameworks.
The industrial background of foods in these stores differed immensely. To resolve this, international standards—managed by the ISO—were put in place to provide a benchmark for safe food production. These standards, however, failed to take into account the glaring differences in food production capacities between developed and developing nations, ultimately placing the latter at a competitive disadvantage. For example, European countries usually have more stringent food safety regulations than other countries, presenting formidable restrictions to goods produced in developing countries. The shelves of the supermarket set the stage for power disputes, between the determined march of globalist markets and desperate local protectionism. International regulatory bodies such as the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) drafted a 43-page document laying out the production criteria that “fresh” tomatoes sold in the EU needed to meet. This report included what could only be described as mugshots of offending tomatoes, exhibiting minor flaws that failed to meet the aforementioned criteria. The supermarket is no longer only a highly technological space tasked with mediation between consumers and producers. Its very shelves reflect the legislative frameworks that control their contents, becoming the ultimate arbiters of edibility.
The Goods, The Bad, and the Ugly
The supermarket is shifting once more in response to the advent of the internet, a change that intensified with lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The result has been a new storefront where the supply chain has reconfigured from a physical encounter with the products in stores to a visual review experienced through a mobile app. Once selected, the products are delivered in minutes to your front door.
This new system applies the principles used by its predecessors with a slightly different interface, focusing primarily on convenience by delivering groceries in descending time windows to as little as 10 mins. Ghost supermarkets and storage units in dense neighborhoods allow these startups to store around 2,000 SKUs (stock-keeping units) of the most in-demand products. At the backend, mathematical modeling of supply chains allows the supermarkets to predict volatility and place orders in advance. Contemporary supermarkets are predicting the future so you can have the tomato you want today rather than tomorrow.
Inefficiencies in the supply chain—such as food waste—are a common target for new businesses. A large number of products are thrown away at the harvesting stage since they don’t satisfy the cosmetic standards set by supermarkets. To combat this, farmers sell “ugly” produce to consumers, restaurants, and produce facilities using online retailers such as Misfits Market or Imperfect Foods. At the storage level, technologies that sense and stimulate ripeness have been implemented to control the aging of vegetables and fruits. This technology has also been developed to help supermarkets introduce a better rotation system for their perishable goods in order for their improper display and storage to be improved. While these endeavors reflect an evolved social awareness of the wastefulness and inefficiencies inherent in the food production supply chain, the solutions proposed offer a temporary reprieve to the symptoms plaguing the system, and in some cases exacerbate their detrimental effects on the planet.
Tomatoes: A Case Study
The tomato at the supermarket was most probably grown far from where you purchased it. Originating in modern-day Peru, the tomato is now the number one selling fruit (or vegetable) in the world. This can be attributed to a number of factors: the tomato’s versatility, its compositional flexibility in the form of a paste or sauce, and its undeniably rich character as a fruit that combines well with multiple food types. This versatility is not accidental and can be traced to the complex combination of flavors found in a tomato, commonly identified as sweet, tart, tangy, or balanced.
Tomatoes are grown all over the world. Regions such as California, Italy in the EU, and Xinjiang in China are responsible for a huge amount of production in their respective regions and sometimes abroad. These regions have the perfect climate to develop this industry, producing tomatoes to be eaten fresh or processed into tomato pastes, sauce, canned, diced, or whole tomatoes, or as a flavoring in other products.
Farming operations in California offer a useful entry point into the journey each tomato takes. On the West Coast, tomato production is contracted out to farmers, with contracts being issued by suppliers and distributors with pre-existing agreements to supply supermarkets and grocers all over the United States. The three main players in these operations—supermarkets, distributors, and growing operations—run with very similar principles, maximizing profits and lowering overhead costs across the board. To do so, they undertake various interventions within their domains: the farm, shipping, and the supermarket.
The Flavr Savr
We assume that tomato-growing operations begin on the farm, where growers plant and harvest tomatoes to sell to suppliers. But it is worth examining how tomatoes are grown and understanding their genetic composition and the role that it plays in farming decisions. A single tomato has 31,760 genes—7,000 more than a human. This staggering level of organic complexity allows it to adapt and evolve in different farming conditions and climates. A phenomenon known as genetic triplication, where the tomatoes carry two copies of every single genetic sequence, allows different varieties of vines to grow, adapting to inconsistent nutritional and water supplies and creating a rich tableaux of tomato species.
Why have we sequenced the tomato genome? To bring back the taste of the tomato that we have bred out. Food biologists, at the behest of growing operations, have studied the tomato to keep track of multiple varieties and analyze their distinct properties. Their primary goal is to tweak tomato DNA to add desired flavors without compromising traits needed for commercial viability.
Most commercial tomato growers are paid by the pound, which has led them to selectively breed for larger, heavier, and healthier tomato varieties. These varieties, however, sacrifice taste (which is mostly influenced by a higher sugar content often present in smaller tomatoes) for other traits that allow them to thrive commercially. Attempts at “improving” the everyday tomato are not entirely novel. The Flavr Savr tomato was the first genetically modified food approved for public consumption, created by Calgene Inc. It boasted a longer shelf life than non-GM varieties and packed a stronger flavor. While the Flavr Savr ultimately failed, mostly due to public hesitancy over genetically modified crops, it demonstrated the viability of genetically modifying foods to dramatically improve their performance. For commercial growers, genetically modifying tomatoes may not yet be feasible, but cross breeding different varieties represents a middle ground that provides them with a commercial edge as they plant tomatoes with better chances to survive the supply chain.
The documentary Harvest of Shame (1960) begins as the narrator explains “We used to own slaves, now we rent them…,” an observation that rings true today. Legislative frameworks such as NAFTA entrenched the inequalities and politics of exploitation that had marred supply chains in the past. Large numbers of tomatoes arriving in Western markets are grown by the labor forces of developing countries such as Mexico, or through Moroccan migrant labor in Spain.
Supermarkets enforce strict price controls on their suppliers. Operations in Mexico are notorious for the harsh conditions that farm laborers endure. Long considered the “bottom rung” of the supply chain, many laborers travel long distances for the opportunity to work in tomato-growing operations, forfeiting their pay for months, a common condition of work on these farms, incurring huge debts to survive while they work long hours.
Laborers, some of whom are children, are ordered to treat the produce with utmost care. Their personal hygiene is policed by their employers, who require them to trim their nails, apply hand sanitizer when handling produce, and pamper the tomatoes, ensuring they arrive in US supermarkets bearing no blemishes. In January 2021, tomato imports from Xinjiang, China, were banned in the US under suspicion that slave labor was used in the harvesting of tomatoes and other produce slated for export. In the town of Immokalee, Florida, throughout 2017, the US attorney for Florida’s Middle District worked on six to twelve slavery cases at any given time.
This cycle of exploitation is often ignored by supermarket chains, who obscure the conditions in which the produce on offer is harvested. They do not explicitly aim to shield consumers from the direct human cost of their “savings,” but rather to normalize exploitation as necessary to uphold the perceived efficiency of the supply chain. In reality, this is yet another example of the externalized cost of harvesting and producing tomatoes at such a large scale. The very real, damaged human bodies are an invisible column in the overall balance sheet, failing to register as the real cost of “doing business.”
From planting through to harvest, tomatoes operate within a tight schedule. Notorious for spoiling easily, tomatoes are usually harvested at 90 percent ripeness, a stage commonly referred to as the “mature green” stage. This usually occurs between five to six weeks after planting. From then on, it is a race to deliver the tomato to supermarkets and to our plates as fully ripe fruit ready for consumption.
For tomato suppliers and distributors, the preservation of the tomato in perfect condition is where they make their profits. In the pursuit of sturdier tomatoes, suppliers exert a large amount of influence over the lifecycle of the produce. Harvesting tomatoes at the mature green stage usually affords suppliers two to three weeks to deliver their produce. Control over the ripening period is paramount, and to do so suppliers utilize refrigerated trucks as primary tools. Beyond that, ethylene (H₂C=CH₂) suppliers engage in a process called ethylene management, having discerned the chemical that triggers the ripening process. By deploying the compound 1-MCP (1-Methylcyclopropene), which is an ethylene action inhibitor, suppliers are able to delay the production of ethylene, putting the ripening process “on hold” and extending its shelf life between the stages of mature green and red ripe from three weeks up to four weeks, gaining extra time to deliver the tomatoes.
Once delivered to supermarkets, the tomatoes—30 percent of which are green but not ripe at the time of the harvest—are exposed to ethylene to accelerate the production of carotenoids. This gives these unripe tomatoes their shiny red hue, the same color that caught your eyes when you walked into the supermarket.
It is evident that to survive the modern supply chain, the tomato, making its journey from farm to table, needed to be drastically changed to fit the needs of the supermarket. There, it is presented to prospective consumers who are woefully unaware of the sheer energy, labor, and resources expended to facilitate that experience we know so well: gently squeezing the tomato. This poses the question of whether availability of the tomato compensates for its blandness when it comes to human consumption.
The Tomato as Energy Form
Although the tomato has existed for thousands of years, each energy paradigm has created its own variant (the same is true for bananas, strawberries, apples, eggs, chicken, even humans…). As the world’s most popular produce item, tomato production—just like any other form of agriculture—is carbon-based at its core.
In her essay “Architecture and the Death of Carbon Modernity,” critic Elisa Iturbe argues for an understanding of human history as a succession of energy epochs, starting with the hunter-gather age and progressing to the agricultural revolution before culminating in the age of carbon-based energy. These energy-intensive ways of life take shape in what Iturbe calls “carbon forms.” A tomato, like Iturbe’s spinach, is grown with petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers, sown and harvested with gasoline-powered machinery, packed in a plastic container (made from fossil fuels), delivered on a truck, and sold in an air-conditioned supermarket. It is, if not, a carbon form itself, a commodity that is circulated in a complex network of carbon forms. Reflecting on the tomato as a carbon form enables us to visualize its relationship to the larger economic and energy paradigms that determined its formation.
These carbon forms (like our tomato) operate on the assumption of an abundant energy supply and limitless resource extraction. While we are capable of intervening directly in the most intimate genetic configurations of the tomato, its production and delivery is dependent on the extraction and consumption of elements that require billions of years to be produced, all to farm an organic component whose nutritional energy will never match its embodied one. One kilogram of fresh tomato contains 170 calories on average. This equates to 0.7 Megajoules (MJ) of energy. To produce one kilogram of tomatoes in a greenhouse takes 13.4 MJ of energy. Non-greenhouse tomatoes will take approximately 4 MJ of energy. This energy is utilized in a production process and supply chain that manages to waste half of what is produced, all to create an ambiguous fruit-slash-vegetable that is consumed in seconds. To make matters worse, it doesn’t even taste that good.
Proposal: A Philosophy for The Node
The environmental cost of supply chains, regardless of their perceived efficiency, is immensely detrimental to the state of the world. The tax it exacts on our natural world cannot be ignored. Yet the planetary supply chain could lay the groundwork for a redesign with the interests of all Earthlings at its center. This entails a 90-degree turn in how we formulate our relationship with what we consume. It uses, as a base, the very systems that have been produced by the supermarket in order to re-choreograph the world towards an equitable distribution of energy: nutritional, emotional, political, and chemical. We might call this new system The Node.
The Node would be an entity that is used but not owned, a commons that can be sensed, analyzed, and then acted back upon to refocus its main goals: to plan and provide for the care of Earth-dwellers by substituting the current goals of the existing supply chain (volatility reduction and profit maximization) with the goal of creating a sustainable human.
We need to understand that the meals we prepare affect our environment at a planetary scale, altering it irrevocably. We need to be conscious that each time we eat, we are eating the planet.
We cannot rely on a system based on the insatiable and aggressive extraction of resources at rates significantly higher than their replenishment. The Node creates new forms of availability in pursuit of making edibility a sustainable long-term ability of the planet. We have to think of the biosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and technosphere as systems which we depend on for our survival.
We can do that by democratizing the supply chain. The Node in its core should be a system that represents the interests of the commons, a synchronized entity that allows for the redirection of the logic of the supply chain. The Node will utilize the infrastructure for surveilling matter created by the supermarket and the supply chain to create a system that is structured around the preservation, cultivation, and diversification of life, encouraging us to relearn how to cook within this new network—using ingredients we are unfamiliar with, adding products that we did not previously deem edible. The Node is a driving agent for us to imagine a possible future outside the norms of the system we inhabit—a system that will consist of the planet feeding itself, instead of us eating the planet.
The Node is a speculative design project initiated for the CBDX: Cities for All competition, hosted by the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at the University of Calgary, Canada.