A personal diary about life in a country town, Bungendore NSW Australia

  Sunday 8 October 2003
Left: Australian and imported garlic, Now class, can you tell me which is which? Above: The Slow Food website, English version. 
Do you 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 that..

"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 USA."

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 price."

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 it.

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 tonnes.

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 funding.

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 quoted...

"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.)

"Another 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 illegally.

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 local consumption?

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."

Visit the Slow Food website
http://www.slowfood.com for information and links to international Slow Food sites. The Sloweb site has the best current news information.

The Slow Food USA latest newsletter is online, they no longer keep an archive.

  Fred Harden ©2003 <thinktag> After a few days, these entries are added to the Archive Menu

Bungendore Country Diary by Fred Harden