By John Tierney, The New York Times, August 30, 2011
Charles C. Mann has faced up to the locavore’s dilemma. At his home in the Berkshires, he likes to eat food that has traveled directly from his own garden: heirloom tomatoes, eggplant, bell peppers, kale, chard, lettuce and other foods for his table. He and his family belong to a farm-share program in which they advance money each year to a farmer a few miles away in return for the farm’s crops. He loves local food, but he knows too much about it to be a truly devout locavore.
Mr. Mann realizes that none of the foods in his garden or at the local farm originated within 1,000 miles of his home. They grow today in the Berkshires only because of farmers and plant breeders and traders throughout the world. While today’s locavores worry about the sustainability of the globalized modern system of agriculture, Mr. Mann sees today’s food system as nothing new.
The foods we consider local are results of a globalization process that has been in full swing for more than five centuries, ever since Columbus landed in the New World. Suddenly all the continents were linked, mixing plants and animals that had evolved separately since the breakup of the ancient supercontinent Pangaea.
What resulted, Mr. Mann argues in his fascinating new book, “1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created,” was a new epoch in human life, the Homogenocene. This age of homogeneity was brought on by the creation of a world-spanning economic system as crops, worms, parasites and people traveled among Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia — the Columbian Exchange, as it was dubbed by the geographer Alfred W. Crosby.
“The Columbian Exchange,” Mr. Mann writes, “is the reason there are tomatoes in Italy, oranges in the United States, chocolates in Switzerland and chili peppers in Thailand. To ecologists, the Columbian Exchange is arguably the most important event since the death of the dinosaurs.”
The consequences were devastating for many ecosystems and people conquered by Europeans. Before the exchange, Beijing was the world’s largest city, and nearly all the other large ones were in warm regions outside Europe. Columbus was seeking a new route to Asia because of the technologically advanced economies that were thriving there.
After the Columbian Exchange, the cities of Europe became the planet’s boom towns, and it wasn’t just because of the Europeans’ culture and guns. Europeans prevailed by changing ecosystems, often in inadvertent ways that have only recently been measured by scientists.
The earthworms that traveled with the English settlers to Jamestown played havoc with the forests and the crops of the Indians. The island of Hispaniola was overrun by fire ants after the Spanish arrived. Throughout the Americas, the settlers introduced organisms that spread horrific epidemics of malaria, yellow fever, smallpox and other diseases.
Meanwhile, people in Europe were reaping nutritional benefits from the Columbian Exchange. Europeans’ diets improved radically from the introduction of potatoes and what Mr. Mann calls the first green revolution: the widespread use of fertilizer, made possible by the importing of guano from Peru.
As always, there were trade-offs. In China, the introduction of maize and sweet potatoes to the highlands provided vital sustenance — and erosion that flooded rice paddies. A ship carrying guano fertilizer to Europe was probably also the source of the organism that blighted the potato crops in Europe and led to the great famine in Ireland in the 1840s.
Mr. Mann has come to sympathize with both sides in the debate over globalization. The opponents of globalization correctly realize that trade produces unpredictable and destructive consequences for the environment and for society, he says, but globalization also leads to more and better food, better health, longer life and other benefits that affluent Western locavores take for granted.
“There are these huge catastrophes that constantly threaten the gains, but I think they only threaten the gains,” he said in an interview. “The lesson of history is that the costs are high — and higher than the advocates of free trade often admit — but the gains are higher still.”
That lesson, though, has always run counter to the intuition of people all over the world. Like today’s locavores, monarchs in Spain and China during the 16th century were deeply suspicious of becoming dependent on foreign food (although the rulers kept failing in their attempts to restrain trade). The monarchs also resented parting with their own crops, a feeling that persists today.
“People in Brazil still talk bitterly about the Brits stealing their rubber seeds and planting them in Asia,” Mr. Mann said. “Brazilians will denounce this horrible ‘bio-piracy’ while they’re standing in front of fields of bananas and coffee — plants that originated in Africa.” Two other leading crops in Brazil, soybeans and sugar, he noted, are from Asia.
Of course, the 19th-century rubber barons of Brazil had good personal reasons to resent losing their monopoly. But those seeds transplanted to Asian plantations increased the world’s supply of a product essential for the belts and gaskets in machines.
“There’s no way the Industrial Revolution could have so occurred so quickly and so widely if the world had depended solely on Brazilians tapping rubber trees,” Mr. Mann said. Indeed, the Asian plantations proved crucial when Brazilian trees were struck by blight.
“On the whole, there are lots more winners than losers from the Columbian Exchange,” Mr. Mann said. “I don’t want to tell Italians they can’t have tomatoes, or people in Sichuan they can’t have peppers. People have a way of taking things and making them their own. I know nothing in my garden is native, but I still have this idiotic feeling that it’s my home.”
How does he reconcile this feeling with this book? What’s a locavore to do? Mr. Mann doesn’t presume to dictate anyone’s food preferences, but he does offer one piece of advice for locavores: go easy on the preaching.
“I’m willing to pay more to get fresh vegetables grown by nice people farming nearby,” he said. “It’s incredible to eat lettuce an hour after it was picked.
“But if your concern is to produce the maximum amount of food possible for the lowest cost, which is a serious concern around the world for people who aren’t middle-class foodies like me, this seems like a crazy luxury. It doesn’t make sense for my aesthetic preference to be elevated to a moral imperative.”