Photograph by BIEL ALINO, Corbis/National Geographic Creative
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A man slides on tomatoes as he celebrates La Tomatina in Buñol, Spain.

Photograph by BIEL ALINO, Corbis/National Geographic Creative

Is La Tomatina a Waste of Food?

The messy tradition that began during World War II has attracted controversy.

On the last Wednesday of August each year, the tiny town of Buñol​, Spain, hosts the world's largest food fight: La Tomatina. It’s a soggy, sweaty, crowded mess that since 2013 has been a ticketed event—a policy put in place to keep the enthusiastic crowds down to a manageable 20,000.

Officials encourage participants to follow a few rules—this is organized chaos, after all. Participants must crush the tomatoes before throwing them (a tomato off the head can hurt!). They should wear old clothes as nothing survives the intense pelting of more than a hundred tons of pulpy fruit, and they can’t start chucking tomatoes until the official blast of cannons.

This festival started around the end of World War II with many legends and myths jockeying for their title as official origin story. However, the reason it has survived as an annual tradition—excluding a period when Franco banned it—is that it’s plain fun.

But as the last tomato falls and the town square is stained red with pulp, it begs the question, is it all just a huge waste of food? The festival has been condemned by some as a messy affront to millions of people worldwide who are food-deprived. In 2016, for example, critics stormed social media after Nigeria suffered a tomato related state of emergency—80 percent of the annual crop was lost. Although the gaggle of people rolling around in rivers of tomato juice had nothing to do with a moth destroying the harvest in West Africa, the optics were not good.

It turns out many of the fruits stockpiled for La Tomatina wouldn’t make it into most Spaniards salads—they are on the turn and most are rotten. But still, weren’t we all told not to play with our food?

Fiona Tapp is a freelance travel writer. Follow her journey on Twitter.