© Kat Morgenstern March 2008, all rights reserved.
How many different types of apples are on display at your local supermarket? Three? Four? Perhaps even six? Are any of them local varieties or have they all travelled from New Zealand, Chile or China? Nobody really knows exactly how many varieties exist, but estimates range from 8000 - 20000, which would include hundreds of non-commercial or heirloom varieties that only grow in certain regions. The average supermarket carries about 5 varieties, chosen mostly for their transportability and shelf-life - rather than their taste or nutritional profile.
There are regulations that determine exactly what qualities a perfect apple (or orange, or banana or any other type of commercially available vegetable) should have, its size, its roundness its colour - all are standardized as if they were factory produced. There is no room for variety or imperfection. An apple that does not come up to the norm will be tossed out - perhaps for juice production.
World market prices for fresh produce are highly competitive - and usually unfair, but that is another issue, which we are not talking about here today. The pressure to produce a standard quality product with as little variety as possible is huge.
There are many hundreds of food crops around the world, yet only a few plant families and species are cultivated extensively for commerce. If you don't grow your own you are left with just a handful of options - carrots or potatoes, corn or cabbage. Your choice is limited by what is marketable, and these highly commercialized crops become ever more 'standardized - nurtured by an agrochemical cocktail that ensures its good looks, never mind the taste.
Can you remember the last time you tasted a vegetable and were awed by its unique flavour? Has it ever happened to you? Most people can't tell the difference anymore, and few actually seem to care. They buy into the convenience philosophy that is used to justify the standardization dogma. But each acre that is given over to industrial, standardized food production is lost to maintaining local variety and biodiversity.
Food and culture are very intimately linked. Place and local produce are occasionally so tightly related that they are virtually synonymous. France, for example, is a country that places a huge value on bioregionalism when it comes to food. Roquefort cheese is not considered 'true' Roquefort unless it is produced in the traditional manner, ripened over time at a certain temperature in a subterranean cave within the AOC of Roquefort. (AOC = Appellation d'origine controlée). An identical cheese produced in a biotech lab just won't do. Thus, each region in France has its own specialities and regional flavours for which it is famous throughout the land. There are AOCs for certain olives, grapes and even chillies. People cherish and value these differences and varieties and they know that quality demands a price. Much of what is produced in this local farming fashion is actually illegal by EU standards and thus unfit for export. You will never be able to taste it unless you venture out into the remote hills and valleys of rural France in search of local flavour. Other European countries are less organized about such matters, but still, local produce and specialties are highly valued in each and every region. However, local producers are finding it ever more difficult to survive in their limited specialty market, with exports barred by legislations that dictate the law of standards.
What have we, as consumers, gained from such standards? Well, you can be sure that your apple will show a certain colour and shape and will probably last a long time on the shelf. What we have lost is the availability of infinite variety, specific kinds of fruit or vegetables that have adapted to the ecological micro-environment in which they were bred over thousands of years, resulting in unique flavours and qualities. And more than likely we have lost the flavour since vegetables that are bred in industrialized fashion rarely ripen in the sun - they are treated with hormones to slow down their ripening process or prolong their shelf life, yet display the colour you would expect.
Standardization serves the forces of corporate agro-business, the same seed giants and fertilizer producers that are currently clambering over each other to secure patents on particular genetic strains in order to monopolize the international food market. There is already much discussion on whether or not farmers should be allowed to save seeds for next year's season. Those who buy from the seed giants soon find themselves in a trap that makes them increasingly dependant on these suppliers - who incidentally also sell them the fertilizers and pesticides they need to grow their crops. Monsanto even fought over the right to produce seeds which will only germinate if treated with one of their products, while the resulting crop would turn out infertile. This is madness and not only undermines the livelihood of traditional farmers (many of whom cannot afford to keep buying new seeds and chemicals), but is also a direct affront to mother earth and her innate nature to create diversity. Although seed giants argue that the 'suicide technology' that would render seeds infertile would protect non-gm crops from contamination, it is obvious that this reasoning is completely flawed, since plants exchange genetic material relatively freely. The danger is that the 'suicide gene' could be transferred to non-gm plants, thus increasing the danger of contamination. Terminator technology is a sure recipe for disaster as diminished or reduced biodiversity threatens food security in the long run - and all simply to satisfy the ravenous appetite for power and money of just a handful of multinational corporations.
For years these corporations have struggled to force European consumers to accept their GMO seeds. At present commercial planting of such crops is still illegal in Europe. But the struggle continues...
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