The Netherlands is Europe’s top exporter of oranges. ‘Oh, has the climate changed that quickly?’ you will be anxiously wondering. Don’t worry, the oranges are still ripening in the Mediterranean sun, it is just that they need measuring, cleaning and packaging. The Dutch are good at doing these things and add logistical value to the product. It doesn’t matter if the oranges travel to and fro across Europe.
This is one of the paradoxes that show how crazy and harmful our system for producing, commercializing and consuming food has become. It is no longer just the food industry that dictates the rules of agricultural production. Now it is the large-scale retail trade which calls the shots, decides varieties and dimensions, needs infrastructure and transport hubs, moves goods according to strategies most people find incomprehensible, but which are perfectly functional for optimizing profits. It is a phenomenon that has caused an abnormal widening of the gap between the price producers receive and the price consumers pay, particularly for vegetables and fruit.
Forced to cope with ever more tenuous profit margins and wishing to escape a situation where they are obliged to exploit the land and make it sterile, many growers have chosen to convert to organic methods. The change is welcomed by consumers and the potential rewards are enormous.
And the large-scale retail trade sees a new, promising opportunity, which it can offer to its customers. There was a recent news item on this subject which provokes a wry smile but also gives some food for thought: the UK supermarket Sainsbury’s is reported to have refused carrots from Prince Charles’ organic farm because they did not meet the required quality standards. A pat on the back for not being intimidated by the royal provenance of vegetables.
But when you think about it more seriously, the case is emblematic of a bigger problem: the Soil Association, the UK’s leading organic organization, maintains that the Prince’s carrots, though of superior quality and more delicate, would have got damaged in transport and spoiled by the inappropriate mechanical washing at the packaging center.
Basically, applying the methods of global industry to quality is like trying to tailor a suit with an axe. The only acceptable approach is returning to a more logical and human local scale. At supermarkets, too—why not?
First printed in La Stampa on July 16, 2007
Adapted by Ronnie Richards