A taste of empire

The globalised food system is, and always has been, rooted in an ecological imperialism that protects some, and leaves others painfully exposed. By Fabio Parasecoli

Tank _autumn 2016_25During the Spanish conquests of South America, quinoa was scorned as a “food of the Indians”. Today it is considered a “superfood” and in 2013 crop prices of the grain tripled. Above, quinoa growing near Cachora, in Apurímac, Peru, by Maurice Chédel, 2000. 

It is inevitable. Sooner or later we all feel sluggish, tired, bloated. No need to worry, though. When our usual stimulants are not enough, we can turn our hopes to a new kind of remedy: superfoods! Quinoa, açai, spirulina, moringa: the list is ever growing. They are vaguely mysterious, allowing us to attribute to them whatever power we want. They come from faraway, exotic locations, where traditional communities have cherished them for generations. They are natural and not synthesised in a lab: somebody has actually grown and picked them in a jungle or a field. They are also easy to find and relatively affordable: neatly packaged quinoa of all colours populates the grain section (or the health-food shelves) of supermarkets. We can enjoy açai in ice cream and smoothies, supposedly adding a boost of energy to our treats. 

As consumers in post-industrial societies, we are used to enjoying almost endless food choices through which we can express preferences, taste, social prestige and financial status. This overwhelming abundance is taken for granted and mostly unappreciated, despite the fact that in many areas of the world food producers struggle to make a living and consumers scramble to make ends meet. 

Superfoods are presented as the perfect marketing response to a global food system that many conscientious eaters feel is in crisis, overstuffed with mass-produced (but convenient), nutrient-poor (but cheap), pesticide and fertiliser-laden (but plentiful) products, quite likely made with ingredients from genetically modified organisms. Concerns for personal health and nutrition at times go together with moral outrage about environmental damage, lack of sustainable approaches, labour exploitation and the overall injustice in food production. 

In this bleak landscape, superfoods loom large as an easy solution to many worries, albeit limited to the sphere of individual consumption. Yet we are rarely aware that they are the last incarnation of power, conquest and trade dynamics that started centuries ago with the arrival of the Europeans on the coasts of Africa, the Indian Ocean, the Americas, and Oceania between the 15th and the 19th centuries. Not that agriculture had been a fairy tale until then: slavery played a crucial role in the production of foods, especially those slated for commerce; crops and animals were looted in wars and all sorts of incursions; farmers were oppressed and often condemned to a state of constant hunger; and harvests were used to extract unfair taxes and tributes.  

Crops, animals and invisible living organisms have circulated since the time when the majority of humans transitioned from hunting and gathering to sedentary communities. For instance, wheat and grapes, domesticated in the Near East, found their way to China by the time written culture emerged. Aubergines and spinach, originally from India, spread to the Mediterranean during the expansion of the Muslim empire from the seventh century. However, such diffusion was extremely slow and rarely coordinated from above. Technology and transportation did not allow the imperial powers of antiquity and the Middle Ages to control who grew what and where (but they definitely tried: sugar was planted and grown in Muslim-controlled Spain and Sicily, for example, as part of their attempts to extend the trade networks that constituted the backbone of their empire). Moreover, the spread of plants tended to be limited by geography: while species from Asia could be transferred to Europe and Africa, they were not to be found in the Americas, separated by oceans and several climate zones. As a result, over thousands of years a multitude of distinctive crops and domesticated fauna – adapted to different environments, geographies, technical capacities and social systems – emerged all over the world.  

That all changed as soon as Columbus set foot on Hispaniola (today’s Dominican Republic and Haiti) and the Portuguese set up shop along the coast of Africa and in the Indian Ocean. The establishment of European trading posts and territorial colonies generated planned efforts to move around edible resources and food-production techniques, according to the economic and political needs of the conquerors. The Spanish caravels did not only carry the conquistadores, but all that they thought they would need for their survival, including horses, pigs, chickens and domesticated animals. They also brought less desirable travel companions such as rats, weeds and germs. In a few generations, common European diseases wiped out entire indigenous populations. The newcomers were determined to change the environment of their new colonies to reflect their habits and preferences by trying to introduce Mediterranean and Old World crops. While onions, cabbages and oranges were able to flourish in the new lands, wheat, grapes and olives had to wait until the colonists expanded their control to temperate climates, like California and Chile.

These crops marked the beginning of the era of ecological imperialism, during which colonial powers felt free to transfer plants, animals and humans according to their commercial and strategic interests. As Spain, Portugal, England, the United Provinces of the Netherlands and France vied to expand their influence while limiting their enemies’ reach, they focused on spreading cash crops that could command good prices and satisfy the desires of the European upper classes. Enter sugar, the king of colonial agriculture and for centuries one of the most sought-after luxuries worldwide. While China had produced the sweet substance for generations, it was often kept within its own borders, whereas Western European consumers had had to rely on imports from the Muslim-controlled lands of the Near East. As soon as they took possession of the Canary Islands and Madeira, the Europeans planted sugar cane, and from there they introduced it to the Americas. During the 17th and 18th centuries huge swathes of land in America and Asia were cleared to make space for sugar production, which was organised in the relatively efficient but awfully exploitative system of the plantation. Millions of semi-free farmers, indentured servants and slaves were forced to work in unbearable conditions to satiate the ever-growing demand for sugar in Europe.

Sugar, chocolate, cocoa and, later, tea all became international darlings, causing environmental destruction, involuntary migrations and human suffering from Brazil to Kenya to Indonesia. In the meantime, black pepper from India and nutmeg from the Maluku Islands were surreptitiously extracted and introduced to the Caribbean, breaking trade monopolies that had lasted since antiquity. Breadfruit was brought from Polynesia to the Americas (remember the mutiny on the Bounty?) supposedly to provide a reliable source of nutrition for the slaves. Crops, of course, also moved from the Americas to the Old World: within decades from the arrival of the first colonists in the Caribbean islands, corn, peppers, squash, beans, tomatoes and potatoes were embraced – more or less swiftly – in Europe, Africa and Asia. 

The “Columbian Exchange” – this long-term global movement of plants and animals, deeply entangled with trade, politics and colonialism – has had dramatic consequences on the conservation of agrobiodiversity, the dazzling diversity of species and varieties that is crucial to guarantee mankind’s future. Ecological imperialism has taken new shapes, but it is far from being a thing of the past. Bioprospectors from large pharmaceutical corporations and food industries constantly scout locations around the world that have so far remained relatively undisturbed, in order to identify plants containing compounds with commercial potential. These occurrences are so widespread that the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity included articles to limit them or, at least, regulate them. The 2010 Nagoya Protocol established procedures for the access and benefit sharing of genetic material whose conservation and use can be attributed to traditional or tribal communities. In fact, the issue of the connection between agrobiodiversity and indigenous knowledge, and the role of women in maintaining and transmitting agricultural information and skills, have both emerged as central to the survival of rural communities and smallholder farmers around the globe. 

The new forms of less blatant but still exploitative ecological imperialism are not the only threats to the conservation of genetic diversity and the survival of our food resources. Crops are vulnerable to climate change, which affects water, temperature and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns. Many agricultural lands are prone to desertification and flooding, which pushes rural populations to move to sprawling urban centres. Air pollution, chemical run-offs and soil degradation due to poor management and hyper-exploitation have made previously fertile areas barren, increasing the risk of extinction of local plant and animal species. Confronted with these man-made and natural disasters, farmers leave their communities, carrying with them the knowledge, skills and techniques that often fail to be transmitted to the younger generations, who do not want to be stuck toiling in the fields in the first place.  

Agrobiodiversity is also threatened by the prevalence of monoculture – that is to say the cultivation of a single crop in a given area – in commercial agriculture, often with preference given to genetically modified organisms that are engineered for better resistance to pests and higher yields. While the opposition to GMO seeds among consumers mostly focuses on the possible consequences for human health and the environment, political issues regarding the ownership of related intellectual-property rights and their concentration as assets of a few Western corporations are at times overlooked. At any rate, monocultures of any kind, although more efficient from the production point of view, tend to be more prone to pests and diseases, as a large number of species offers better chances that at least some may survive new threats.  

Nevertheless, monocultures continue to expand: following the 2007-2008 financial crisis, agriculture has turned into a target for market speculation and is expected to generate immediate and tangible revenue for investors. Commercial crops such as wheat, corn, rice and soy, usually grown as monocultures, have become attractive on stock markets, leading to greater price instability and sudden spikes, with dire consequences for the poorest segments of the world population. The unrest that hit Egypt, Haiti and Yemen, among others, in late 2007 and 2008 is testimony to the seriousness of these issues. Observers have also pointed to the increase of land use for biofuels, shifts towards greater consumption of meat and dairy in countries like China and India, and the effects of trade liberalisation as possible causes for food crises. The pressure on crop prices also reflects the activities of sovereign funds and private corporations, which have been buying large tracts of productive land, especially in Africa. In the phenomenon labelled as “land grabbing”, farmers’ land is not always forcibly expropriated; instead they are lured by ready cash to sell their properties – often with the complicity of local authorities. 

Overall, the expansion of intensive and mechanised agriculture, often concentrated in the hands of large conglomerates and influenced by the preferences of colossal buyers such as distributors and supermarket chains, has favoured the prevalence of a limited number of sturdy, high-yield and commercially valuable crops. As a consequence, many native species that may be slower and more labour-intensive to grow, with lower yield, or less prestigious from a cultural and social point of view, are likely to be abandoned. Actually, many have been on the verge of vanishing, which has prompted the intervention of NGOs and other organisations to identify and protect them. The international association Slow Food, for instance, has instituted the “Ark of Taste”, a list of disappearing crops and animals species, as well as the traditional knowledge connected to their growth, with the goal of highlighting them and increasing interest among consumers.

Traditional and artisanal crops are also being protected with a special category of intellectual property called “geographical indications”, now included in World Trade Organization agreements. These legal instruments emphasise the connection between products and the places in which they originate. Champagne, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Costa Rican coffee and argan oil from Morocco enjoy worldwide reputations because – according to the supporters of this approach – their characteristics are closely connected to the soil, climate and agricultural traditions of the locations in which they have been traditionally produced. As a consequence, no wine can be called champagne if produced anywhere but the area determined by the geographical indication. The system, relatively successful in Europe, has also been adopted in developing countries where governments hope to move their products out of unstable and low-price commodity markets into better-paying, speciality niches. However, not all crops can boast enough distinctiveness to take advantage of these systems, which are neither cheap nor easy to institute and maintain. Superfoods do not grow just everywhere either, and at any rate the income that derives from their sales rarely trickles all the way down to the producers. Other schemes, such as fair trade, microfinance and development aid, have been launched to help farmers, especially in the least developed countries. These are important steps in the right direction, but much still needs to be done to make our global food system fairer, more sustainable and more varied, and to create viable alternatives to the prevalent model based on ecological imperialism, monocultures and industrial agriculture. §