Monday, February 18th, 2013...3:31 pm

Breaking Down Boundaries with Global/Local Fruit

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Ok, since this week’s topic for class is “Interspecies,” I’ll step away from Rockbridge for a moment here to talk about a paradox that has been the focus of my independent thesis research over the past months: global fruits gone local.

Claude Levi-Strauss writes, “Food is good to think,” so I’ve been thinking tomatoes and dragon fruit (picture below, for those not familiar with it). These two fruits have little in common at first glance, but a deeper investigation reveals more similarities than one might expect. For starters, both fruits originate from regions in Central and South America, but have made important impacts in places other than their origins. Tomatoes have become an icon of small New England farms and dragon fruit is Vietnam’s fastest growing export. Both of these fruits are, in some way, considered “local” to their region of impact, but their histories make them global fruits. How do global fruits become local, and what does this mean for the values people ascribe to such designations? These are some of the questions driving my research.

Mutant double dragon fruit!

While I don’t have time or space here to go into a full examination (that would be my thesis), I do want to bring up something I have noticed to be valuable in addressing paradoxes surrounding meaning and food: the value of a multispecies approach.

While my mind loves and craves structure, I cannot deny the interconnectedness of our “divided” worlds. This urge to investigate interconnectedness manifested itself in a simultaneous study of botany and anthropology, conceptually distant and distinct disciplines. What I found was a disturbing separation of ways of thinking about people and plants. My childhood revolved very much around plants and today much of my time is dedicated to growing (and eating) plants, so I knew that this separation was artificial.

Student garden bounty, including tomatoes

After poking around in anthropology for a way to bridge this gap, I was introduced to multispecies ethnography. In “The Emergence of a Multispecies Ethnography” by Kirksey et al, the authors write, “multispecies ethnography centers on how a multitude of organisms’ livelihoods shape and are shaped by political, economic, and cultural forces.” Below, Donna Haraway speaks to the idea of moving away from human exceptionalism and understanding relations beyond, but including, the human. With a newfound permission and framework within which to break down boundaries and separations, I could set aside my love for structure to look a the messy bundle of colonial, scientific, cultural, and political history as it meets the biology and utility of plants.


Donna Haraway on Human Exceptionalism from Eben Kirksey on Vimeo.

So, from this new position, I could see possible explanations for how tomatoes became farmers’ market icons, and how dragon fruit came to mediate anxieties about Chinese domination in Vietnam; I could see reasons why New Englanders like their local tomatoes and the Vietnamese like their local dragon fruit.

An ode to homegrown tomatoes

A lot of my insight came from history. Both fruits were introduced—or made their way over—through colonial structures and gained a foothold at or before a time of transformation. When we consider the power of social memories, things existing before a new era can appear as old and traditional, even. Tomatoes were introduced before the USA was the USA. Dragon fruit were introduced before Vietnam’s infrastructure and economy began their booms. In the economic memory, these fruit are part of the nation and have shaped and been shaped by its developments.

Just looking at the human agency in dispersing these fruits does not entirely explain their present-day “localness.” Plants use us (humans) by, as Michael Pollan writes in The Botany of Desire, “acting on [us], getting [us] to do things for them they couldn’t do themselves”(Pollan 2000:xiv). We assist them in widespread pollen or seed dispersal, and privilege them to be cultivated—and thus survive to reproduce—over another plant.  They entice us to act for them with qualities we want to spread for our own benefit, such as taste, appearance, resiliency, versatility, and more. For tomatoes and dragon fruit, these qualities inspired their global travels and new adoptions.

A preview of PBS’s TV version of Pollan’s The Botany of Desire:

We could look at the travels of fruit just from a historical or cultural angle, but by doing so we’d return to confining ourselves to a single-species/discipline approach, which misses a lot of the bundles and webs within which fruit and meaning are situated. We’d also be continuing on a path that gives little thought and respect to the systems that create our food. If we’re going to feed a burgeoning population with healthy, nutritious food, we must respect the plants as much as we use them, as respect begs understanding and understanding breeds collaboration. We must collaborate with our plants so they produce what we love.

Next time you eat a fruit, vegetable, or really any food, think about ideas you have about it, where they came from, and how that item’s qualities and behaviors helped humans shape their ideas and meanings around it. And then enjoy your food.

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