Texas and Ohio call the tomato their state fruit. But in New Jersey, it’s the state vegetable.
Where are we going? To why people care about what we call a tomato.
A Supreme Court Decision
Because of the Tariff of 1883, an importer’s tomatoes had been slapped with a 10% tax on vegetables. Objecting, he said those tomatoes are a fruit and not subject to the levy.
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1893, the Court did agree that scientifically the tomato was a fruit. However, all that mattered was common usage. Because the tomato was commonly perceived as a vegetable, it was a vegetable.
In the words of the Court, “Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine, just as are cucumbers, squashes, beans and peas. But in the common language of the people…all these vegetables [like tomatoes]…are usually served at dinner…and not, like fruits, generally as dessert.”
The tomato debate continued into the 20th century when the USDA proclaimed ketchup a vegetable in 1981. Even Senator John Heinz (yes that Heinz… from the Heinz ketchup company) disagreed. Saying ketchup was a condiment, he continued, “This is one of the most ridiculous regulations I ever heard of, and I suppose I need not add that I know something about ketchup and relish — or did at one time.”
Although the USDA reversed its position, the debate continued. In 2011, a Senate bill said that the tomato paste on pizza could be counted as a school lunch vegetable.
Now tomatoes are making international trade news again. But this time, a group of Florida growers wants tariffs. Because Mexican tomatoes can be cheap and because Mexico has a better climate for growing tomatoes, U.S. farmers are asking for protection. Otherwise they say that their industry cannot survive.
Our Bottom Line: Comparative Advantage
Hearing about growing and eating tomatoes, 19th century economist David Ricardo would ask us to remember comparative advantage. He would say that because Mexico produces tomatoes with the lower opportunity cost, it should export them to the U.S. Through free trade world productivity will increase, every nation will benefit,…
And school lunches will cost less.
My sources and more: Isn’t it surprising that the tomato is rather controversial? This Washington Post Wonkblog and the Atlantic have great stories of past conflicts. Then National Geographic has the scientific details and another Washington Post article looks at NAFTA. And finally, if you want to read more, here is the summary of the Supreme Court tomato case.
Ideal for the classroom, econlife.com reflects Elaine Schwartz's work as a teacher and a writer. As a teacher at the Kent Place School in Summit, NJ, she’s been an Endowed Chair in Economics and chaired the history department. She’s developed curricula, was a featured teacher in the Annenberg/CPB video project “The Economics Classroom,” and has written several books including Econ 101 ½ (Avon Books/Harper Collins). You can get econlife on a daily basis! Head to econlife.