I just finished Barbara Kingsolver’s fascinating book on her family’s year of eating locally, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I was happy to be challenged about the food choices I make, based on how much fuel and energy are expended to get my food to market. There is also the issue of supporting local farmers, instead of those in another region or another country.
Initially, I was patting myself on the back, because most of the produce we buy is local. We can even eat bananas till they come out the whazoo (a food Ms. Kingsolver’s family must pass on since it comes from the tropics). But then I remembered those Moroccan apples in my fridge. Morocco is on the African continent, but it’s two countries away from here. Oops.
There’s also a section of our market here which sells produce trucked in from the Malian Region of Sikasso. Is that local? It’s in Mali, but it’s about as far from where we live as you can go without entering Côte d’Ivoire. It’s about 1000km from here – that’s 600 miles. Now Ms. Kingsolver suggests a standard of 100 miles for those living in fertile areas, such as southern California, or in her case, Virginia. But she used to live in Tuscon – a very Mali-like climate – and in that case she suggests 250 miles. So even by that standard, I should avoid the Sikasso section of the market. Hm. On the other hand, a lot of the vendors in the local section buy their goods in bulk in the Sikasso Market, so I may end up buying them anyway, but paying more. (I also just calculated the distance my apples had to travel: almost ten times the generous limit for Mali or Arizona!).
But, really, fresh produce is not the issue here. We are strangers in a strange land, and as such we like to splurge on imported goods so we can eat like back home. It’s not even much of a splurge (except for cheese). Cans of veggies, jars of jam, containers of applesauce can all be found in my pantry, most from the European Union, and fairly reasonably priced. How about coffee: at least our instant coffee comes from the neighboring coffee-producing country of Côte d’Ivoire, but our “real” coffee is shipped from there to be processed in France, and then back here. Double jeopardy on hydrocarbons! (To be fair, you can buy ground Ivoirian coffee here, but as my daughter, Danielle, says, it tastes like ground peanuts. The Ivoirian instant actually tastes better than the Ivoirian ground coffee).
Still, I have not even touched on the biggest food import problem in West Africa. What if the local people wanted to eat locally? They are pretty much good to go as far as produce is concerned, and few are rich enough to buy imported canned goods and cheese anyway, so they don't miss them. Even the sheep and cattle butchered here are all local (we see the cows being led to the slaughterhouse every night on foot). But the center of the Malian diet is RICE. Where does that come from? Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, the USA… Definitely NOT local.
How did people become so dependent on a food they do not produce? First of all, some rice is produced in Mali (Sikasso again, where it is more tropical than savannah, and has a greater rainfall), but it costs more than imported rice, and there is not enough of it for everyone if the whole population decided to start eating it.
Are there alternatives? There are several, the primary being millet. The problem is that all of the alternatives are more labor intensive than rice. Rice is Fast Food! All you gotta do is pick over it a bit, wash it and cook it. Millet needs to have the husk pounded off, then winnowed, and then it needs to be milled. It’s a lot of work. Malian women already work much harder than Western women in food preparation. Who can blame them for wanting to simplify their lives a bit with the convenience of rice? Furthermore, although rice is more expensive than millet, it goes farther. Say you can get 2 cups of cooked rice from a pound (pulling numbers out of the air here). A pound of millet only yields 1½ cups cooked. So not only do you have to work harder, you have to prepare more of it. At certain times of year, the price becomes almost equivalent. And finally, most people like the taste of rice better.
I don’t know what the solution is for my Malian friends. They are all addicted to green tea from China, and there’s no way they are going to give that up. I don’t even have a good solution for myself! I am going to ask for Malian rice at the market from now on, because I can afford to pay the higher price. There are also some Malian produced jams, which although expensive, I will try to buy to support the local industry. I could also make more jams myself. But what about my applesauce and cheese and coffee and canned corn and Moroccan apples and powdered milk? That’s a hard one! I guess the important thing is to be as conscientious as possible, making every effort to buy locally, even if it’s not practical to do so 100%. Wish me luck! (And read the book – I highly recommend it!)