An Impossible Mango
I spoke at the Just Food CSA conference yesterday, sharing a discussion on being a locavore with Colin Beavan (No Impact Man). One woman asked us an interesting question about food and immigration: with thousands arriving in the U.S. from South America and the Caribbean, is it fair to ask them to give up their food culture just because many of the ingredients can’t be grown locally?
I don’t pretend to have a solution to all the implications of that question, but I do have a few thoughts on why this current migration is different agriculturally from those of the past.
Perennial plants can travel in either direction east-west, but not south-north. Apple trees from Europe, for example, did just fine when planted in New York because the climate is similar. Mango trees traveled easily from their origin in Southeast Asia to South America. But mango trees can never travel north because eventually they’d be killed when they reached a latitude with cold winters.
Crops grown as annuals are a different story. Tomatoes, originally from South America, do fine in the north because they are ready to harvest before winter kills the plants. But perennials such as fruit trees often need to grow for several years before they start bearing fruit–years spent outside in a climate like the one they evolved in.
There can never be a mango tree that grows in Brooklyn.
Of course food is not just a botanical reality check. It is also memories and culture and generations of cooks passing on their recipes. Someone from the Caribbean could point out that when Italian immigrants arrived here they kept eating their grapes and figs. So why shouldn’t someone from the tropics keep eating the tropical fruits that are part of their heritage?
Because grapes and figs can grow here (I have both in my garden). Tropical fruits can’t. The difference between a mango eaten in the islands and a mango eaten in New York City is the fuel it takes to get it here.
It seems harsh to say to one culture, go ahead and bring your food with you, while telling another that they are causing environmental damage by continuing to eat the foods they grew up with.
One thing that has changed in our world is that it is no longer wind in the sails of trading ships that brings us our imported food items. For people to continue their food heritage away from their country of origin, and for any humans to continue to trade items long distance as we have for centuries, we have to find ways that do not involve harming the planet that feeds us.