know where just one ingredient of your last meal came from?
In a past issue of the American Slow Food magazine the
Snail August 2002 - ( no longer online
but archived as a 1.2mb PDF if you'd like a copy) there's
an article that I recommend to anyone interested in food and
the future of agriculture. I've re-read and quoted it a
number of times, but don't be put off by its academic title,
'The incompatibility of Food and Capitalism'.
It is after all by an academic, Joan Dye Gussow who is an
Emeritus Professor at Columbia University, but she's a
passionate author and teacher of nutrition. In it she says
that when she asks audiences of eaters the question above
(about knowing where their food comes from), they usually
can't even guess the continent. The point she makes is
"Growing food requires land,
labour and capital, and while capital can move feely, land
and labour can't. Much food production has therefore gone
to where land and labour are cheapest, which is not the
Or Australia for that matter. In the article (a
speech to a group of 'non-profit institutional investors and
entrepreneurs' ) she offers a quote from Indian novelist and
activist Arundhati Roy.
"When you go to Europe or America
for the first time, you arrive in a city where you don't
see any mud, and everything looks really nice, all the
cars and the steel and the glass. But I look at a car and
think 'somehow this came from earth and water and forest'.
How? I don't know. But you need to know - you need to know
what the connection is: who paid the price of what."
Joan Gussow concludes ...
"That's exactly what I would say
about the foods we eat. We need to remember that somehow
they came -- and must continue to come "from earth and
water and forest" and we need to know how and who paid the
Her comments relate to something that the Slow Food
movement holds as basic principles, that of traceability and
accountability. Where did it come from and who made or grew
it, and was it done in a natural sustainable manner?
In the market a few weeks ago I bought a few heads of
garlic and I paid about three times as much as I would have
in the local Coles supermarket. That's because it was
Australian grown garlic. It was selling for about $12 a
kilo. I knew immediately that was locally grown, (most
comes from the Riverland area), because of the root base
that was prominent on the bulb. As you'll see in the
photograph above, all imported garlic has to have those
roots cut off and the base treated with chemicals to ensure
that there are no soil organisms or diseases imported with
Growing garlic commercially in Australia is a tough
business. Although the growers have been getting around $7 a
kilo this year and the active healthy ingredients in the
local product (such as allicin that has been shown to lower
cholesterol levels) are higher than imported, the future
doesn't look good. There are no import restrictions or
tariffs to protect a small market and we import thousands of
tonnes of garlic every year, while growing less than 300
In the Riverlink
Annual report for 2002 Roger Schmitke from the
Australian Garlic Industry Association painted a bleak
picture of future of Australian garlic growing. He said ..
"Lack of support for meetings
has resulted in the annual general meeting being the only
event held by the Australian Garlic Industry Association.
Cheap imported garlic from China and the lack of support
from major chain stores in buying local is also helping
the demise of the Australian industry.
The Australian Garlic Industry
Association has for the last four years applied for a levy
with no success.
Research into drying of garlic
and extraction of compounds for medicinal use has come to
a grinding halt in Australia. This research is now being
conducted in America and Europe backed by large amounts of
The virus free garlic program
funded by Rural Industries Research and Development
Corporation (RIRDC) and Horticulture Australia Ltd (HAL)
has come to an end and the only garlic free of virus
available to growers has to be imported from overseas.
As to the future of the industry
at this time it looks like its back to the mid 1970's,
many little growers and only three growing any quantity."
The American garlic industry has the same problem. In an
old article I found online, a US lawyer Mike Coursey is
"In 1992, imports to the U.S. from China were between 3
million and 4 million pounds," Coursey said. "Two years
later in 1994, Chinese imports exceeded 64 million pounds.
Considering that 150 million pounds are used in the U.S.
annually, you can imagine the impact this had on American
garlic growers." Chinese imports resulted in an even worse
scenario than strong competition, however. It was quickly
determined that China was "dumping" garlic at prices far
below what it cost farmers to grow it. (One figure quotes
an early '90's price of 1 cent a pound.)
problem was the conflicting growing season," Coursey
continued. "Chinese crops go to market on top of U.S.
crops. Garlic imports from other countries, such as Mexico
and South America, complement the U.S. growing season
because their garlic is brought to market during the
months that the U.S. isnít supplying the commodity."
Canada effects a 91 cent per kilogram duty on Chinese garlic
imported between July and December, the peak supply months
for the local product but it is not taxed the rest of the
year which seems a fair system. In the USA, here is now a
376% import tariff on Chinese garlic that will last until
2005, but there are problems with produce being shipped to
other countries and then relabeled for importation into
America. Whenever a product is so cheap, and can be sold for
high profit there will always be someone tempted to act
This doesn't mean the product from China is substandard.
While local growers have been able to show that flavour and
ingredients such as allicin are higher in the Australian
product, they haven't been able to convince people that they
should pay more for it.
China produces 72% of the world's garlic and could supply
100%. As a source of easy cash, it's as valuable as their
apple crop (which is another story). Vast areas of the best
land are being turned over from mixed agriculture and rice
growing to produce a monoculture crop. Are we told about
what impact that has on Chinese farmers lives, and of
marginal land having to be used for food production for
To me, it's a classic case of those Slow Food principles
of Traceability and Accountability. Shouldn't I have enough
information to make an informed choice? Why doesn't my
supermarket have labels that say their garlic comes from
China? Finally, do we care enough to go to a local market
and buy a local product at a higher price?
Joan Gussow should have the last word.
"At the moment, the effects of
profit-making on the food system are almost entirely
negative. My own response to this conclusion has been to
try and demonstrate that more local food systems in which
people are closer to the sources of their food - and thus
might willingly pay enough for food to protect them - are
both possible and palatable."