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American Harvest Revisited

Special Contribution by Abbie Rogers

When most of us bite into a chocolate bar, an ear of corn, or even a sun-warmed tomato fresh from our gardens, we appreciate the flavor of the food but rarely consider the millennia-old history that brought the taste and nourishment to our mouths. It would seem odd to us to consider Italian cuisine devoid of tomatoes or polenta, Irish stews without potatoes, Thai curry lacking peanuts or chiles, or French pastries sans chocolate or vanilla. Yet an astounding array of foods that we consider staples of worldwide cuisines originated in Central and South America, and were unknown to the rest of the world until European Conquistadors returned from the New World, bringing American species with them. This cross-continental exchange was coined the Columbian Exchange by history and geography professor Alfred W. Crosby Jr. in his 1972 book of the same name.

The Columbian Exchange, from http://thecolumbianexchange.weebly.com/
The Columbian Exchange, from http://thecolumbianexchange.weebly.com/

In October 2014, when we first debuted the Peace Meal Supper Club: American Harvest menu, our goal was to honor some of our beloved food plants that originated in the Americas and explore the process that brought them to tables worldwide. Revisiting this menu for an upcoming event reminded us just how big this topic is!

Striking portrayal of globalization. Photo by Sandry Anggada, National Geographic. http://bit.ly/1nsFffJ
Striking portrayal of globalization. Photo by Sandry Anggada, National Geographic. http://bit.ly/1nsFffJ

During our 2014 research, we realized that the seemingly modern phenomenon of globalization, which mixes economic and cultural benefits with extreme inequality and the exploitation of communities and ecosystems alike, extends back centuries. The global trade set in motion by Columbus’ contact with the Americas has been characterized by unequal exchange from the beginning. The extraction model through which European explorers and traders acquired and commodified a wide range of American species has expanded and become entrenched. Today, multinational corporations and powerful nations are the conquistadors wielding trade treaties to force less powerful communities to produce commodities for the world market. Those in power benefit from these arrangements, while those producing the crops for export often live in extreme poverty.

American Harvest was the fourth Peace Meal Supper Club theme, and it has been astounding to see how many other PMSC themes it intersects, ranging from Seed to Labor. The extraction model that the Europeans used in the New World appears in many of the topics we cover. For example, as we discussed with the Pollination menu, the European honeybee (an introduced species which displaces native pollinators) is trucked by the millions across the US to pollinate monocultures that bloom for only a few weeks a year.

We apply the same model to our treatment of the intricate ecosystem found in Dirt, sterilizing the soil and depleting it of nutrients through unsustainable farming practices, and then applying chemical fertilizers to grow crops artificially.

Our attitude towards Seed has especially strong connections to American Harvest; powerful governments and corporations have a strong habit, dating back the Columbian Exchange, of taking seeds and other genetic material from developing countries, commodifying and patenting them, and then selling them back to the communities that originally developed the seeds. The final price is steep, not only in terms of money.

Global Imbalance of the Availability of Nutritious Food, from Food: An Atlas, by Guerrilla Cartography, available here: http://www.guerrillacartography.org/atlases/
Global Imbalance of the Availability of Nutritious Food, from Food: An Atlas, by Guerrilla Cartography, available here: http://www.guerrillacartography.org/atlases/

The Fair Trade, Cacao, and Labor menus illustrated the impact of globalization and international trade agreements on the global south, the countries producing much of the food consumed by the global north. This marketplace dynamic is, according to farmer and author Will Bonsall, a form of erosion in which soil nutrients, water, and even the energy of labor leave the producing communities never to return home again.[1] This breaks what was once a sustainable cycle. In general, much of the world’s food is produced by countries which also suffer from some of the highest levels of poverty, malnutrition, and ecosystem depletion.[2] And to add insult to injury, the people who grow cacao beans in Ghana or Brazil have never tasted chocolate.

Peace Meal Supper Club: Mississippi demonstrated how far we will push the extraction model without concern for the environment or disempowered people. Whether in the form of higher levees or more complex trade agreements, consumerism and imperialism disregard the needs of the producers, inhabitants, and natural world in deference to the all-mighty dollar.

The interconnecting topics highlighted in Peace Meal Supper Club can be admittedly dark and overwhelming. And though many of the issues are more immediate, how can we possibly address the complex chain of events that began with the Columbian Exchange over 500 years ago?

We may not be able to change history, but there are steps we can take to change the future. The issues of social justice, environmental stewardship, food sovereignty, and others are deeply intertwined, but that means that many of the actions we take to change one aspect will ultimately affect other aspects as well. A common refrain of the Labor Movement stated “An injury to one is an injury to all.”[3] The upside is that healing for one can be healing for all.

What can we do today? Plenty! Consider these ideas:

  • Tomatoes, originally descended from Mesoamerican plants with berry-sized fruits, are now grown on a massive scale in Florida’s sandy soil. The soil is sterilized and pumped full of fertilizing chemicals before each season, creating an entirely artificial growing environment. The farmworkers who tend and harvest the tomatoes—many of them undocumented immigrants from the same regions as the original tomato—are subject to a litany of mistreatment ranging from toxic pesticide exposure to physical and sexual abuse. Agricultural work is specifically exempt from many labor laws, and the few laws that are on the books do little to help systematically disempowered migrant workers.
Immokalee Tomato Pickers, photo by Bill Serne, Tampa Bay Times, 2006. Article here: http://bit.ly/24NfrwJ
Immokalee Tomato Pickers, photo by Bill Serne, Tampa Bay Times, 2006. Article here: http://bit.ly/24NfrwJ

Immokalee, Florida, is known as “America’s Tomato Capital,” but Chief Assistant US Attorney Douglas Molloy calls it “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” Molloy, who works on up to a dozen slavery cases at a time, further explains that “any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave.”[4] The combination of an artificial and chemical-laden environment and worker exploitation yields rock-hard, green tomatoes that are shipped to supermarkets across the country year-round after ripening through exposure to ethylene gas. These tomatoes fill our desire to have a red slice on our burgers or salads, but are notoriously tasteless.

So buy tomatoes grown locally and in season—or even better, grow your own! Avoid buying fresh tomatoes in the winter if at all possible. Can, dry, or freeze tomatoes in the summer that you can use throughout the year.

Fair Food Program Label. Please look for this label to support workers' rights in the field! Learn more: www.fairfoodprogram.org
Fair Food Program Label. Please look for this label to support workers’ rights in the field! Learn more: www.fairfoodprogram.org

If you must buy fresh tomatoes out-of-season, choose organic brands certified by the Fair Food Program (FFP). This project of the hugely effective and internationally recognized Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworker-run human rights organization based out of the Florida tomato fields, is a “unique partnership among farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies that ensures humane wages and working conditions.[5] The only third-party organization monitoring agricultural workers in the US, the FFP requires its participating farms to adhere to a higher standard of worker treatment, while participating buyers (ranging from Whole Foods to McDonalds) pay an additional penny per pound of tomatoes. These pennies add up and significantly supplement worker incomes.

You can find a list of participating growers and buyers at the Fair Food Program website. Do be aware that most of these certified tomatoes are not organic, so workers—and the environment—are still exposed to chemicals in spite of protective measures. Lady Moon and Lipman Produce are certified as organic and FFP growers. Pacific Tomato Growers and Ag-Mart, while not fully organic, do sell some organic tomatoes.

  • Potatoes are a ubiquitous yet underappreciated vegetable native to the Andes. Today, we tend to think of potatoes as deep-fried junk food, and historically, Europeans long viewed them as only suitable for livestock and the poor.[6]
The nutritious potato! From the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The nutritious potato! From the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Yet potatoes are high in vitamin C and multiple B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, fiber, and are a source of low-fat energy.[7]  The South American peoples who first domesticated the plant–and developed some 5,000 varieties[8]–appreciated the potato as a nutritious and long-lasting staple. They have been essential to the diets of low-income people worldwide for centuries. According to NeBambi Lutaladio of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the potato is usually traded more locally than cereal crops and other global commodities, and for this reason it “helps vulnerable consumers ride out turmoil in world food markets.”[9]

Pamela Anderson of Peru’s International Potato Center calls potatoes the “third most important food security crop in the world.”[10] We should embrace potatoes as a healthy, cheap, and versatile food that can be grown locally in many regions and preserved easily through the winter months. Roasted, mashed, or used in diverse dishes from around the world, the humble American potato is an excellent way to eat sustainably.

  • Grow a milpa! Ancient Mayans developed a holistic and interconnected polyculture farming system called a milpa, in which they planted diverse crops, including corn, beans, and squashes, together for mutual benefit. According to Tio Joel, a Mixtec farmer who still plants in the way of his ancestors, “In our milpa, plants carefully chosen over millennia complement and mutually assist one another to produce high yields of all the food and medicinal plants our communities need for our health and that of the soil and the Mother Earth…. The milpa is an agro-ecological wonder of biodiversity and plant ‘communal’ life. It is the product of communal societies of complementarity, mutual aid, and respect that are the social genius of our indigenous communities.”[11]
Milpa, photo by Leah Penniman, 2015. See her excellent article here: http://bit.ly/1R1Yi8h
Milpa, photo by Leah Penniman, 2015. See her excellent article here: http://bit.ly/1R1Yi8h

Monocultures that require ever-increasing chemical inputs to grow much of the world’s food deplete the soil, starve wildlife, and poison the air and water. On the other hand, the complementary plants grown in a milpa regenerate the ecosystem and allow farming to continue on the same plot for thousands of years.

We can benefit from the wisdom of the milpa even in our own backyard gardens. Companion planting, crop rotation, and saving regionally-adapted seeds are just some of the sustainable gardening techniques that are healthy for us and for the ecosystem.

  • Buy Fair Trade goods and support food sovereignty. A disproportionate amount of the world’s food is grown in equatorial regions, often by farmers who are so deep in debt to the agricultural corporations that supply their seeds and fertilizers that they struggle to feed their own families. Most of these farmers do not own the land they farm, and have no power to choose what they farm or how much money they make. Forced labor, including child labor, is prevalent in industries such as cacao, the indigenous American plant that once served as a ritual beverage among the ancient Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec royalty–and is now eaten worldwide in the form of adulterated candy. Due to global politics and trade agreements set in motion by the Columbian Exchange, Central and South American communities where many of the world’s food plants originated have very little food security. They cannot control their own food supply.
One of the earliest Fair Trade cooperatives, Equal Exchange. www.equalexchange.coop
One of the earliest Fair Trade cooperatives, Equal Exchange. www.equalexchange.coop

We may be consumers of privilege, but we are also global citizens. It behooves us to treat the people who produce our food as we would treat our neighbors. We support positive systems of exchange when we buy certified fair trade products. The Food Empowerment Project, which “seeks to create a more just and sustainable world by recognizing the power of one’s food choices,” maintains a rigorously researched list of fairly produced chocolate.

We should also support projects that champion food sovereignty, defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”[12]

La Via Campesina is an international grassroots movement that represents 200 million small farmers worldwide. Together, they launched food sovereignty into the global eye. Other impactful organizations working in this arena include GRAIN, Food First, the previously mentioned Food Empowerment Project, and the US Food Sovereignty Alliance.

And, finally, if you are fortunate enough to experience Peace Meal Supper Club: American Harvest, we encourage you to dig deeply into the menu.

 

[1] Will Bonsall, Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening (Vermont: Chelsea Green, 2015), 56.

[2] Explore these conditions interactively at the Global Food Insecurity website.

[3] This slogan has appeared in various forms. “An injury to one is the concern of all” was perhaps the first version, but the version quoted above was officially adopted by the United Workers of the World in 1905. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_labor_slogans)

[4] Barry Estabrook, Tomatoland (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, 2011), 75.

[5] http://www.fairfoodprogram.org/

[6] http://www.history-magazine.com/potato.html

[7] http://www.fao.org/potato-2008/en/potato/factsheets.html

[8] http://www.fao.org/potato-2008/en/potato/origins.html

[9] http://www.fao.org/potato-2008/en/perspectives/lutaladio.html

[10] http://www.fao.org/potato-2008/en/perspectives/anderson.html

[11] Phil Dahl-Bredine et al. Milpa: From Seed to Salsa (2015), 3. See also http://sustainablemilpa.blogspot.com/.

[12] Declaration of Nyéléni, the first global forum on food sovereignty, Mali, 2007

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