Ahundred workers were picking tomatoes in a field near Wusu, a town in northern Xinjiang province, China, half way between the provincial capital, Ürümqi, and the border with Kazakhstan. Most were migrants from Sichuan province, with a few Uyghurs. A teenage girl raised her cleaver above her head and cut off a leafy stem loaded with ripe fruit. Another worker picked up the stem and shook it, and the tomatoes fell to the ground with a thud; gradually, the field was covered with red and green stripes. Men and women crouched down to fill big plasticised canvas sacks. They were earning 2.2 renminbi for each 25-kg sack, just over 1 US cent per kilo. ‘Me and my wife can sometimes fill 170 sacks in a day,’ said one worker. That works out at around $28 each, 10 times more than they earned in the early 2000s. But now they compete with machines imported from Italy.
From a corner of the field, Li Songmin watched his tomatoes being harvested. Li rents the field, and didn’t know the pickers, who were all recruited through an agent. That evening, a truck would deliver the tomatoes to a factory run by Cofco Tunhe; that was all he knew. Cofco Tunhe supplies him with high-yield Heinz varieties, which he must grow according to precise specifications, and guarantees to buy the crop at a pre-agreed price.
Cofco (China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Corporation) is China’s largest tomato processor and a Fortune global 500 corporation. It’s a conglomerate that brings together entities established during the Mao era, when it was the only company authorised to import and export agricultural products. Its subsidiary Tunhe, which specialises in sugar and industrial tomatoes, has 15 tomato processing plants, 11 in Xinjiang, producing drums of paste that it sells to agrifood giants such as Kraft Heinz, Unilever, Nestlé, Kagome, Del Monte, PepsiCo, and McCormick, the world leader in seasonings and spices.