From Tree to Table A Global Food Journey

Published on
April 29, 2022 at 3:56:00 PM PDT April 29, 2022 at 3:56:00 PM PDTth, April 29, 2022 at 3:56:00 PM PDT

What's for dinner?

I walk into the supermarket on a mission. 

I’ve put together an exciting menu of bright flavours and aromas to dazzle my dinner guests. I steer my shopping cart to the produce aisle, in search of something tropical. While prices in this section of the store are steep this time of year, I’m prepared to shell out a little extra cash to treat myself and my friends. I turn a mango over in my hands, examine the skin for bruises, test it for just the right softness, and sniff for sweetness. Satisfied, I select three, tick them off my list, and walk away, never pausing to consider just how far the mangoes have journeyed to grace my winter table. Sound familiar?

You can walk into any major Canadian supermarket at almost any time of year and buy a mango. Have you ever stopped to think how that can be? I mean, have you ever seen a mango tree in Canada? I can guarantee you they’re not flowering in Saskatchewan in March!

Over the past century, the globalization of our food systems has taken some major turns. Mangos in March. Kiwis in July. Coffee in every home’s cupboard. Not to mention sushi, butter chicken, and burritos on demand. How is it that a family in landlocked Alberta can sit down to a dinner of grilled fish (Canada’s Atlantic coast) with a side of herbed quinoa (Peru) and garlic butter asparagus (China), drink Bordeaux wine (France), and enjoy chocolate (Ghana) mousse and a cup of coffee (Colombia) for dessert? Are there downsides to mixing diverse ecosystems and thousands of miles of distance on one plate?

I don’t think any of us would argue that the mind-blowing diversity and availability of food in our Canadian supermarkets isn’t fantastic. We love our fresh bananas from Hawaii and TimTams from Australia! We love them so much, we pretty much take their presence on the shelves as a given. Rarely do we stop to question whether we should have mangos in March. I mean, why shouldn’t we?

Isn’t the globalization of our food system good?

Good for our nutrition and making us more open-minded by exposing us to different cultures? Good for the low-wage farm workers who need our markets to support their income? Good for all the dock workers, factory employees, and truck drivers?

Doesn’t buying a mango in March in Canada love my global neighbour who needs my support? To explore these questions (and more!), we followed the journey a mango takes from tropical tree to Canadian table.

Global markets 101

Without global food markets, it would be impossible to access foreign fruit in our Canadian grocery stores. But what is a “global market”—that thing which facilitates almost every item we purchase, from a $5 T-shirt at a big box store to a high-end silver laptop.

Unlike trade that happens at your local craft fair or farmer’s market, a global market is not limited by geography. Rather, it involves goods (like mangoes), services (such as banking or shipping), and labour (like farm workers) of one country being traded (purchased or sold) to people of other countries. 

For example, a business located in Canada may purchase parts (goods) for one of its products from South Korea and Germany. The parts may be shipped by a shipping company from Greece (services) to an outsourcing firm in China for assembly (labour), then transported across transcontinental railroads for distribution in European retail stores, or through ecommerce anywhere in the world. 

This means someone in Attawapiskat, Ontario can purchase a computer from this Canadian company from the comfort of their own couch and have no idea how many countries and hands it traversed before landing on their doorstep in a home-delivered box.

Global food markets work in a similar fashion. With growing interconnectedness, our daily purchases in the supermarket can impact the livelihoods and wealth of families far away. 

Take, for instance, a mango.

The global market for mangoes was estimated to be around 17 billion USD in 2018 and is forecasted to grow by 6.4 per cent every year into 2025. Why? Because of rising demand, mainly from North America and Germany. In other words, because you and I want to eat mangoes. 

So, whose farmers should be getting richer by 6.4 per cent every year for four more years? In 2020, the top five mango exporting countries were Thailand, Mexico, Netherlands (primary port of entry and exit for European Union mangoes), Peru, and Brazil. So what about Canada’s mangoes?

In the Mango Orchard

Canada’s mangoes come from the pacific coast of Mexico, where the two states of Baja California Sur and Sinaloa make up nearly 35 per cent of Mexico’s commercial mango production. To keep pace with demand, Mexico’s mango production is growing 3.7 per cent year-over-year!

Ever since the North American Free Trade Agreement came into effect in 1994 (recently replaced by the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement), Mexico has provided us with a huge amount of all the fruit and veg we see in our stores, the bulk of which is commercially produced by large companies. You’re most likely familiar with their names from the little stickers labeling the produce. 

In Mexico, these companies typically rent fields from farmers on five-to-seven year leases. They farm the land intensively before moving on to a new area and starting over. Part of the agreement is to leave behind infrastructure—irrigation wells, electrical installations, and water extraction tools—for local farmers. If you’re thinking that sounds too good to be true, you’d be right.

When soil is farmed intensively, especially for a singular crop without rotation, the nutrients in the soil deplete with each harvest. Over time, this leads to struggling crops and infertile soil. In the case of orchards, soil erosion is just as dangerous as nutrient depletion. With the type of irrigation required for large-scale farming, the extraction of water from underground sources often far outpaces the natural rate of replenishment. Irrigation can lead to topsoil being swept away, which not only destabilizes trees and root systems, but can contaminate the local water supply with pesticides and other chemicals.

In the region of San Quintin in Baja California Sur, such substantial damage was caused to the water supply by large-scale farming that the quality of drinking water was dramatically affected. This led to local protests and political clashes. 

Yet the companies responsible don’t stay to address these issues. Instead, they move on, leaving the local population with subpar land and compromised water.

The potential for labour exploitation is just as serious in migratory farming. 

When a company brings their operations to a new area, new jobs are created, which has the potential to enrich the local economy. However, new workers are often less organized and more willing to accept lower wages than experienced workers in the previous location. And even though labour laws prohibit children under 16 from working, kids can often be found harvesting alongside their parents.

But not every orchard in Mexico has these issues. 

Smallholder farmers who have more control over their land and labour conditions also grow mangoes. But with large companies having such a substantial share of the industry, it can be difficult for small scale farms to make a go of it. Even though the Mexican government offers subsidies to support small farms, their fruits are rarely exported, meaning they probably won’t reach our kitchens in Canada.

As awareness about issues such as direct trade, resource depletion, and working conditions continues to grow, however, some large companies are keeping up and adapting their practices. And after a series of protests in San Quintin, some workers were able to negotiate better wages and conditions. 

These are budding signs that it is possible for increased justice to permeate our globalized food system, starting with how our food is grown.

Over Land and Through the Skies

Mangoes can be a tricky food to ship. A ripe mango has fragile skin and bruises easily. So they need to be picked green, while they are harder and tougher. Still, these mangoes need to be moved, fast. That’s where the cost comes in. 

Because of the time-sensitive nature of ripening mangoes, it makes more sense for mangoes coming to Canada to be shipped via air, rather than land or sea. What cost does this have on our environment, specifically carbon emissions?

Different forms of transportation related to food production and shipment have different environmental implications that must be considered when weighing the benefits and costs of a globalized food system. 

"The global transportation sector is a major polluter and in 2020 produced approximately 7.3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.” While passenger cars were the biggest source of emissions that year, road freight accounted for 29.4 per cent, shipping 10.6 per cent, and air freight 2.2 per cent. While clearly more goods are moved by land than air, carbon emissions from air transport are roughly four times those of land shipment, and up to 30 times those of sea shipments. 

So, for a product that needs to be transported before it ripens, the environmental toll of getting a flat of mangoes flown all the way from Mexico to Canada is going to be a lot steeper per unit than moving hardier produce or locally grown products.

Transporting produce from farm to store also involves human costs and benefits. There are middlemen who collect the mangoes from the farm, labourers who pack them, and pilots who fly them. There are customs inspectors who ensure no invasive species of plant-killing bugs are hiding amongst the fruit and truck drivers who haul them overnight down the Number 1.

Research suggests that, in general, transportation related to the food industry accounts for only 4 per cent of a food’s greenhouse gas emissions, while production accounts for 83 per cent. 

So, let’s talk about post-harvest production.

Fresh, Frozen, Dried, and Pickled

Demand for processed mangoes is on the rise as consumers look for juices, fruit bars, and candies. The expanding market is good news for the millions of smallholder farmers in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America who earn their living selling mangoes to local and international consumers, yet who struggle against post-harvest losses, that is, losing fruit to rot or pests after it has been plucked from the tree.

In Africa and Asia, farmers have been known to lose an estimated 50 per cent—half!—of their crop during the main harvesting season. To address this loss, many exporting countries process the mangoes. Mangoes can be transformed into purees, canned or frozen slices, chutneys, pickles, curries, beverages, and various dried products that extend their shelf-life. They can then be supplied to the market even outside the growing season.

All this processing, this “value add”, generates jobs which provide income to families who might not otherwise have work. However, it also consumes precious water and energy, and produces waste. In addition, every time a mango is processed or packaged, the farmer’s share may go down. 

So, while processing the fruit presents a solution to one problem—post-harvest losses for the farmer—it also requires more resources and potentially shortchanges the farmer.

Consumer Power (Or, I Really Want To Eat A Mango)

One of the foundational drivers of the global food market is consumer demand, that is, what you and I say we want to eat and are willing to pay for. 

These purchases are often motivated by emotional and social desire and culinary preference rather than a consideration of what is in season (loving the environment); who grew, harvested, processed, packaged, and moved our food (loving our neighbour); and what our bodies actually need and wallets can afford (loving ourselves).

Whether the Mexican mango we buy is in or out of season, fresh, frozen, dried, or pickled, one thing remains the same—a desire to eat a tropical fruit means we are participating in a community of production larger than ourselves.

How? Nations specialize in producing and trading foods they are uniquely advantaged to grow and leverage for income. 

For example, the Canadian prairies are well suited to growing cereals. They are not, however, suited to growing coffee. Yet the Canadian consumer demand for coffee last year totaled 298.8 million kilos. Lucky for us, Colombia has the perfect climate for growing coffee. So, instead of growing food for their own consumption, Colombia produces and exports coffee, then imports cereals from countries like Canada. The result? The Canadian demand for coffee now has control over a share of Colombia’s economy, while their people are dependent on countries like Canada to produce their basic foods. When events like the COVID-19 pandemic shut down agricultural production and import/export capacity, the average Colombian family depending on imported food may go hungry.

What does coffee have to do with mangoes from Mexico? It’s another example of how our preferences can have incredible global reach and can inadvertently put families at risk who survive on food that’s grown thousands of miles away.

Encouragingly, a recent survey shows that over half of consumers globally increasingly consider the environmental impact of a product or manufacturer before making their purchase. This is especially hopeful considering recent consumer reports show the vast majority still prioritize price, produce, and convenience over values. 

How, then, will we choose to leverage our buying power?

So…what’s the point?

Our mango has journeyed a long way. So long, in fact, we may have forgotten why we started following it in the first place! We got a hankering for something tropical and paused to ask the question, “Should we buy mangoes in March in Canada?” Which got us rolling into the globalization of food markets; farmers versus large corporations; degraded soil and polluted air; innovative processing and job creation; desire, diversity, and deliciousness. 

One thing’s for sure—our food systems are complicated!

Because Canada does not usually experience widespread food shortages, we don’t often think about food security. But helping families in FH partner communities become independent of unpredictable global markets and resilient toward shocks caused by climate change and global disruptions like COVID-19 is a top priority. 

FH teaches people to sustainably grow their own food for consumption and develop local food markets for income, while still connecting to national or even global markets to sell cash crops, like coffee. 

Moving communities away from mono-cropping and dependence on foreign appetites reduces their risk of hunger and gives them more freedom and agency over their own health, their own lives, their own futures.

Should we in Canada also consider a return to eating what is locally and seasonally possible? As we’ve seen, there are pros and cons to purchasing mangoes in a sub-arctic region and it wouldn’t hurt to ask a few more questions about all of our food. 

Questions like, “Does this purchase love the land it was grown in? Does it help or hurt the farmer, factory worker, and truck driver? Does it feed me in the ways I truly need to be fed?” And, ultimately, “Does my purchase of this food love God?” Because we cannot love God without loving our neighbours (1 John 4:20).

And perhaps that’s the real point of this mango journey—to realize our food (and all our purchases) connects us to people and land far beyond our daily experiences, connects us to ourselves and to God in ways we rarely pause to reflect on. 

Because whether or not we can see the global difference our personal decisions make, knowing our values and consistently living them out draws us deeper into the flourishing God has planned for our lives.

So let’s not be afraid to ask, in what ways do our consumer desires break or reconcile our relationships with our global neighbours? And let’s encourage each other to make informed, compassionate, and courageous choices when we wheel our food up to the till.

Food for the Hungry Canada’s stated purpose is to end poverty—one community at a time. This involves the reconciliation of four primary relationships—with God, self, others, and creation.

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