Zaleski: An attack of the killer tomatoes

In the 1978 movie “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” benign veggies become a source of horrific terror. Tomatoes somehow (it’s never explained how) morph into ravenous killers so vile that even drinking tomato juice made from a killer tomato is fatal. The inexplicably nasty tomatoes eat a kid, attack swimmers and kill an investigator. Eventually they are herded into a stadium and shrink to stompable size when exposed to the pop song “Puberty Love.” That’s the plot. No kidding.

The film received a negative reception. The reviewer for “Variety” said the film “isn’t even worthy of sarcasm.” Ouch. Still, it has moments of clever parody (“The Birds,” “Jaws”) and sendups of B-movie sci fi genre. The film has a cult following; three sequels were made. There are video games, TV cartoon series and a 1997 tribute novel, “Attack of the Killer Potatoes.”

Esurient killer tomatoes? Implausible, but funny. What is not funny is the spectre of killers wreaking havoc on the nation’s food supply and distribution system at the nexus of food security, food safety, agriculture and terrorism. It is plausible. It is not farcical spoof or science fiction. To understand the threat, mark the calendar for March 27, when experts on the topic will present a program on the North Dakota State University campus in Fargo. Amy Kircher is director of the Food Production and Defense Institute, and co-director of the Strategic Partnerships and Research Collaborative, both at the University of Minnesota. William Nganje is chairman and professor in the Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics at NDSU. Their presentation is the third in a series of public discussions on terrorism presented by the Northern Plains Ethics Institute at NDSU. “Terrorism III: Food Safety” will consider two questions:

  • What should people know about food safety?
  • Who (individuals, government, schools) should be doing what?

Issues to be examined within the broad topics: The differences among food safety, security and defense. Motivations for food defense, such as terrorism, sabotage, economically motivated adulturation. Vulnerabilities in the system. Overhyped and faked concerns. The role of consumers. The role of food companies. Scientific literacy and food safety.

The subject resonates in farm country, where the food chain begins. Done right, modern agriculture is a miracle of crop production, labor efficiency and environmental stewardship. But the system from farm to table is complicated, diverse and for the most part unprotected. It is vulnerable to mischief.

I am a member of NPEI’s advisory board. I’ve signed on as moderator for the discussion and question/answer segment. It will go from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, March 27, in the Century Theater in NDSU’s Memorial Union. It is open to the public, no charge.

It is unlikely a terrorist attack is first on the minds of Red River Valley farmers preparing for spring planting. The same is true of shoppers packing a cart with Iowa bacon, Florida oranges or Minnesota greenhouse tomatoes. And no question, killer tomatoes are nonsensical fiction. But killer terrorists bent on destroying thousands of acres of tomatoes should not be written off as improbable fancy.