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Ingredients Have Immigration Stories, Too

Partner Content

The crops that thrive in various climates around the globe have stories to tell.

Strawberries are immigrants. While the berry has grown wild around the world for millennia, the garden variety we snack on today only exists because of a chance Pan-American hybridization. In the 1700s, two strawberry varieties that had been imported to France from the New World crossbred, producing plump, juicy berries that were then exported around the globe for cultivation. They are now one of the biggest crops in the Americas.

Many plant species and ingredients that we’ve come to identify with certain regions have similar stories. Like humans who spread out to all corners of the earth, plants have traveled far and wide from their origins, diversifying themselves and the global food supply along the way. Knowing the migration stories of the things you eat could change your whole outlook on consumption.

The Long Road to Flourishing

Take pomegranates, for example. This fruit originated in the lands spanning from Iran to northern India, then spread throughout the Mediterranean thousands of years ago. In 1769, Spanish settlers brought the pomegranate to California, where the fruit—and the Spanish—put down roots. While Spain officially lost its colony in 1821, the pomegranate remained, having been naturalized to the drier parts of the state. Eating a California-grown pomegranate today is like taking a bite out of the remnants of the Spanish Empire. 

Mangoes, like strawberries, would not be the fruit we know today if it weren’t for migrants cultivating the plant’s seeds in new locations. The mango, which is native to India, traveled to Southeast Asia in conjunction with the spread of Buddhism and Hinduism. Explorers from China and Iraq also took the fruit back with them to their home countries. It didn’t make its way to the Americas until the 1700s. But in each new settlement, the best, most adaptable fruits were selected to breed, resulting in the contemporary, multicultural mango.

Today the mango is still traveling. One prominent producer of the fruit is Ecuador, which exports 70 to 75 percent of its mangoes to the US. The country has a competitive advantage over other big mango exporters because of its climate: Ecuador’s harvest season is long, lasting from mid-October to early February. And as Ecuador’s mango exportation increases, the country can build more treatment and packing plants and hire more workers, many of them immigrants. The country’s current constitution, ratified in 2008, is actually quite revolutionary, as it grants legal rights to ecosystems and citizenship to immigrants.

Crops at Risk—and What’s Being Done to Save Them

Plants tell the story of culture, migration, and globalization. So when they are at risk, our global food economy, history, and culture are also at risk. Farmers around the world are facing geological challenges, like natural disasters that decimate crops. In Washington State, vast orchards of the world’s finest black cherries grow under the constant risk of wildfire. The long-term, compounding effects of poor soil quality—in Washington and around the world—are eroding the land and making it hard for farmers to grow nutritious and delicious fruits and vegetables. This is especially evident in areas that practice large-scale monocropping (the planting of only one type of crop). Without genetic diversity, orchards and fields are more susceptible to disease, erosion, and destruction.

But there are protections in place. During times of geological crisis, like the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that hit Ecuador in 2016 and affected the country’s mango crops, humanitarian organizations like CARE step in to help communities rebuild so families can continue to earn a livelihood. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, where pomegranates grow, drought is a serious concern. So UC Davis’s Fruit and Nut Research and Information Center is investigating more sustainable agricultural practices. Joining them is Sustainable Conservation, a local organization that incentivizes business owners and public agencies to restore damaged ecosystems and replenish California’s fresh water supply.

Fluctuating food and drink trends can also affect the viability of crops. Exciting—and sometimes exhausting—for eaters, these trends are not always good news for the people who work in the global food industry. Spikes and dips in demand—one day avocado toast is the most popular dish in town, the next day, it’s charcoal lemonade—can impact their entire way of life. Even more significant fluctuations can occur due to the local economy, climate change, and political unrest—factors that have prompted non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and grassroots campaigns to support food workers and craftspeople. These initiatives are helping them to fight poverty and job insecurity, giving them hope for a more stable global food future.

Your choice of what to eat or drink affects more than your taste buds. To be a truly conscious consumer, be aware of where your food is coming from, follow changes in national food policy, support farms and industries that share your values, and back organizations that try to make life better for agricultural workers around the world. Then you’ll really enjoy that next strawberry.

To help you understand more about where your food comes from, Munchies and Liberté have partnered to produce UPROOTED, a three-part mini-documentary series premiering in December 2017. This series profiles three ingredients found in Liberté products that are not only delicious, but have stories to tell about how they reached their ideal climates and how they’ve changed the communities around them.

Alyson Sheppard is a food and beverage writer, whose work regularly appears in GQ, Esquire and Playboy magazines.