ETN 194: Exchanges
Not much to share with you at this season, because most of what is being shared with me is reheated leftovers.
Here’s to the future.
Complicating the Columbian Exchange
In the decades after 1492 “a massive multidirectional transfer of biota, diseases, technology and humans occurred between Afro-Eurasia and the Americas”. But if you look at the standard maps of these movements, collectively known as the Columbian Exchange, you miss almost all the complexity and context of what moved, where, why, and what else was going on.
That’s the conclusion of a new paper: (Re)Mapping the Columbian Exchange. Suggestions for an Updated Cartography. The paper itself is behind a paywall, although one of the authors is a friend of the podcast so I may well invite him on to discuss the story in more detail. Thankfully, the maps themselves are available to download, and even a superficial glance shows that the story is much more interesting than the standard maps imply.
You can’t see the wealth of detail in this map, but you can download the full-sized version.
Each of them overcomes the “overly constrained geographic scope, chronological compression, non-depiction of the contemporaneous movement of important cultural, technological and biological elements of each product, ethnocentrism and the obscuring of human consequences” of the standard map, and I look forward to reading the new plant biographies just as soon as I get hold of the paper.
Comparing Apples and Apples
Is there a trend among university professors to publish students’ work on their own websites? I get the impression I’m coming across that sort of thing more often. The latest example is from Yao Ma and Zhiran Qin, PhD candidates in Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis. They compare and contrast apple production in the US and China under the belaboured title Who Loves Apples the Most (Other than Isaac Newton)?.
Apple production in China has increased 10-fold since 1990, and now accounts for well over half of global appple production. Remarkably, almost all of that it eaten by the Chinese themselves, with less than 3% exported in 2019. Fuji (a delicious variety) dominates, with more than 70% of Chinese production. The authors point out that apples are grown primarily in relatively poor provinces in central China that currently enjoy the warm days and cool nights propitious for good apples. Government subsidies to apple growers have helped to drive economic growth. No word as to whether climate chnage will affect those provinces adversely.
An interesting factoid from the US side; more than 30% of US apples are canned, frozen, dried, or crushed into juice. That seems like a lot, and I would have welcomed equivalent figures for China.
Perhaps the authors might take a look at that Columbian Exchange article. It could help them craft a better history than “Back in the early 17th century, apples were brought from Central Asia to America and East Asia by European colonists and travelers. Its cultivation expanded to five continents in the following centuries.”
An Exchange Good for Bees, Bad for Farmers
Vernonanthura polyanthes is a shrub or small tree native to Brazil. It arrived in Mozambique sometime in the 1990s as a good source of nectar for bees. From there it spread to Zimbabwe, where farmers complain it has become an invasive weed threatening croplands and pastures. Beekeepers, however, love it because it flowers in the winter, when there aren’t many other sources of nectar. And because it is almost the only plant in flower, it produces so-called monofloral honey that fetches a higher price.
A ding-dong battle is growing. Farmers and environmentalists want the government to do something to totally eradicate the plant, which they say is ruining agriculture and tourism. But beekeepers say that farmers should not leave land fallow, which they do to restore fertility, because it gives Vernonanthura polyanthes an opportunity to become established.
I expect a compromise is inevitable.
Fermentation Versus Modernisation
Low-tech magazine is a delight, “a solar-powered, website which means it sometimes goes offline”. Quite a few of its articles are dedicated to low-tech aspects of food production, and one that re-surfaced recently is about the way food systems in Vietnam take advantage of deliberate fermentation to reduce food waste.
While the article has a whiff of the foreigner abroad, trying to understand strange tribal customs, the author is aware of that:
It is a bit disingenuous to caricature Vietnam’s food culture as obsessed with rotting, and suggest that this is largely the result of a tropical climate. Rather, what we’re dealing here is difference in taste: what may seem strange and pungent to one culture is highly appreciated in another. In fact, one of the greatest impressions I have of Vietnamese culture is its deep appreciation for gastronomy: subtle, complex flavours, considered textures, modest spicing and well-balanced contrasts define Vietnamese cuisine.
Still, for a once-over-lightly, it is an interesting read. It was, however, written in 2017. I wonder how much of the scene it describes has survived even five years? The article says “Vietnam’s decentralised food system has low energy inputs and reduced food waste, giving us a glimpse of what an alternative food system might look like.” The problem I see is that the Vietnamese are keen to give all that up and embrace the modern world with its unreliable cold chains and inevitable food waste. I suspect it will be a while before Vietnam aspires to hipster, artisanal pickles.
p.s. Stand by for an early drop of the next episode, on Friday 24 December.