November 19th, 2014
The history of spices reminds us that even in a world lit by fire, it was possible for delicacies from the remotest corners of the earth to end up in the far corner. The history of exploration, too, was driven by the search for food until only the nineteenth century — sure, gold came out of the New World, but the real riches were the kind with roots. Corn, tomato, potato, rubber, vanilla and, yes, chocolate all came from the new world. Old world treasures migrated, too. Citrus, apples, bananas, wheat, rice and, let’s not forget, coffee. But in all this globe-spanning one thing remained a constant: harvested foods could go anywhere, but the living stuff was picky about where it lived. True, it could circle the globe, but the trick was keeping to the same bands of latitude. However, today’s bands of latitude ain’t yesteryear’s, which is producing some interesting effects.
Take coffee, for instance, which now has a toe-hold in California. It’s minor, but the notion of getting local coffee while living in North America is quite something. And it may have greater value than reducing food-miles, too, as coffee is facing a grim future in its native latitudes, where the land is the same, but the sky is utterly different.
Quinoa, the tiny grain in the leotards silkscreened with “superfood,” is also on the move. Turns out that it’s now growing in Britain. Those endlessly clever Dutch at the University of Wageningen have managed (without the sleaze of genetic engineering, mind you) to create a Europe-friendly variety of the “sweet” quinoa that humans prefer. It’s still small potatoes at the moment, but given that it’s getting tough for quinoa-growing peasants in the Andes to afford their own harvest, this is probably a good thing and the story has a particularly rosy glow to it because the farmer in question, one Stephen Jones, is the 20-something son who grew up on the family farm.
At least, I think it has a rosy glow. There are some off-key notes to the story, such as how young Stephen procured the exclusive license for the variety in the UK, which means that he’s now got other farmers growing the stuff on contract for him. “It’s not that common for a family farm to hold the rights to a crop variety,” he says, and that’s true enough and I’m delighted that it’s him and not, say, Conagra. But it’s enough to make one wonder if the twenty-first century grain is being grown with a decidedly twentieth century sensibility. I’ll leave you with a final quote from young Stephen: “It is certainly a more labour-intensive crop to grow because we don’t have a full range of chemicals available yet.”
But even when you do everything right, it can still get you into trouble. Take Iceland, where rates of breastfeeding are so high that there’s not enough breastmilk left to bank for those new mothers who can’t produce themselves. The solution, we are told, is air-expressing breastmilk from the Viking mother country, Denmark. It’s hard to argue with; if there’s one food that’s worth the multiple kinds of cost incurred by putting it on a jet, this is it. But still, you have to wonder if putting the key food source of your most vulnerable citizens on the other end of an airliner route is the smartest idea when you live on an island with 30 active volcanoes.
Finally, there’s food in constant motion, by which I mean fish. The history of our relationship with our most important wild food is dismal. As recently as fifty years ago, the oceans were still seen as inexhaustible when we already had nearly 1,000 years of evidence to the contrary. And even when we do try to manage for sustainability instead of maximum profit extraction, the fundamentally mobile nature of the quarry means that it’s easy for people to cheat. A particularly brazen example is a company by the name of China Tuna which, in a revealing instance of sloppiness, accidentally mentioned their actual business practices while trying to drum up investment cash. It’s worth looking at to understand that overfishing isn’t a mistake, or a question of degree, but simply and intentionally criminal.
I happen to like the idea of the ocean as a living sea instead of a holding tank for the last tuna, which is why it’s heartening to discover Global Fishing Watch. Using satellite tech and the AIS tracking system built into all large vessels, Global Fishing Watch can identify and locate all fishing activity on the sea. What’s more important, they can identify which boats are fishing which claim not to be fishing, because fishing vessels move in characteristic and distinctive ways.
Who knew global surveillance could have an upside?