Follow Your Food: The Strange Journeys of the Things We Eat
It seems like a simple enough question: Where do we get our sugar from? Finding an answer, however, is not so easy. But the nonanswers—about tariffs, about sugar reexporting, about the United States’ sugar war with Mexico—are instructive. Most everything that you can conveniently pick up at the grocery store made its way there from an origin point determined by a complex mixture of geography, climate, historic trade relationships, modern free-trade agreements, and colonialism. Even if you shop at the farmers market, which is a valiant effort to opt out, the local food movement is in many ways itself a result of a trade deal. “Imported” was a marker of quality, after all, until NAFTA turned it into a dirty word.
The way sugar imports are treated leaves Americans paying more for sugar, which infuriates free-market types, but that’s not the point. Rather, it’s to look at the larger question of why our food comes from where it does—the beginning point of what is, on average, a 1,500-mile journey—and at what cost. It’s a question that is seldom confronted at the grocery store, but once you start paying a bit more attention to country-of-origin labeling (or acknowledging just how much of what you consume comes from California), a window opens into the strange journeys of the things we eat.
We’re examining those paths in a series launching Monday called “Follow Your Food.” It seeks to ask the questions that aren’t raised in the grocery store—such as where the cane your sugar is made from was grown—and tell the stories of how farming, transportation, federal policies, climate change, and advertising have an outsize effect on what feels like the most personal of decisions: what you choose to eat.
Look solely at the waste this global system produces—between 25 percent and 30 percent of production ends up getting tossed—and you can see the costs we pay for our convenient, abundant consumer experience. A 2012 study published in The Journal of the Total Environment looked at the broader effect of those losses (which the researchers calculated at 25 percent of global production) and found that it amounted to wasting 24 percent of freshwater used in farming, 23 percent of global farmland, and 23 percent of fertilizers used. While it feels like there will always be more food, the land and the inputs used to grow it are very much finite resources.
When we sit down on the Fourth of July and load up on true-blue American foods—the barbecue, the sweet corn, the coleslaw, the pie—it’s not a celebration of independence on a paper plate. The holiday meal, like most any meal, is the end point in a global transportation system that excels at delivering a constant supply of cheap food as well as degrading land and straining the environment in ways most of us never consider.
Even sugar, with its fraught history in the European colonies of the Caribbean and throughout the tropics, is boiled down to a simple choice at the store: white, brown, or raw cane. But did it start out as a sugar beet in Minnesota? Or a stalk of cane cut in a hot, humid field in southern Mexico?
If you buy cane sugar, the raw material was likely grown either in the U.S.—Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico all produce sugar—or Mexico. But that’s not because they grow the most of it or we’re happiest to buy it from them. Policy measures that date back to 1789 protect the meager domestic production, while Mexico is the only country in the world that can sell sugar to the U.S. without paying a steep tariff, thanks to NAFTA. Meanwhile, Brazil, India, and China are the world leaders in farming cane.
Sweeteners are by no means the only grocery items that follow such a convoluted route to the grocery store. In “Follow Your Food,” we’ll show you the inner workings of how and why the things we eat are produced and travel the way they do.
Consider seafood: The United States is a global leader in fishing, but we import 90 percent of what Americans consume. As our story shows, going the local route—and skipping the environmental, labor, and public health problems associated with much of our imported catch—means embracing some ugly sea creatures. Chefs from coast to coast are showing diners that those ugly sea creatures happen to be sustainable, local, and delicious too.
Despite the booming craft brewing industry—the sector has grown from 5 percent of the overall industry in 2010 to 11 percent in 2014—that local beer of yours is largely the product of big agribusiness. You can’t make beer without barley, and three major companies, including Cargill, sell the majority of the malted grain in this country. But as locally grown hops have become a thing, we take a look inside the indie malthouses connecting local brewers with local grain farmers.
From free-trade agreements like NAFTA (and the Trans-Pacific Partnership that’s currently being negotiated) to California water politics, elected officials have an outsize influence on who grows your food and where. With all the cachet that farm-to-table has (in part thanks to the long distances free-trade deals have forced food to travel), fast-food chains are talking up their farmers in a new genre of ads we’ve dubbed farm-vertising that focus more on freshly picked produce than on gooey, melting cheese. Meanwhile, their network of “small farmers” has grown so big that half of the country’s potato harvest goes into making french fries—which are kept near or at freezing in the endless array of refrigerated spaces that make it possible to take all of this food from there to here.
The fertilizer pesticides, fuel, and labor that go into the global food chain add up. While the convenience of the modern grocery store is unparalleled, it may put the climate at risk. Which is why chefs, restaurateurs, and, in some instances, entire states are trying to find a better way—to let the trade pacts and trade wars and industrial-scale growers and colonial mind-set and 1,500 miles of travel, on average, for a piece of food become a thing of the past. Instead, the thinking goes, food should be farmed, harvested, shipped, and cooked in a way that doesn’t contribute to climate change, and just maybe—if quixotic restaurant The Perennial is a success—helps prevent it.