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  January/February 1997 Features:
Hormone Impostors
Poison Pens
What You Don't Know Can Hurt You
Edge of Eden
Ways & Means
Food for Thought
Way to Go
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Sierra Club Bulletin

Sierra Magazine
Food for Thought: To Every Fruit There Is a Season

by Paul Rauber

By the shores of Iceberg Lake in the shadow of the Minarets, I took out the fresh fruit I had hoarded in my pack all week. It was silly to carry the extra weight, of course, but I wanted to splurge. I did feel foolish, though, when reading the little stickers showing that the luncheon treat had been on the road far longer than my five days on the John Muir Trail: the apples were from New Zealand, the oranges from Australia.

The innocent shopper these days is being lured farther and farther from the fields of home. With supermarkets now regularly featuring winter produce from Central America and the Southern Hemisphere--Antipodean fruit, Guatemalan snow peas, Chilean berries and peaches--we are now encouraged to ignore not only our local farmers but the play of the seasons.

The price of the convenience of being able to purchase anything at any time is the loss of the sacramental: year-round cherries rob summer of what makes it special. But the price to the producer countries, whose economies and landscapes are deformed to suit North American culinary whims, is far higher: it is paid in the clearing of native forests, the dominance of foreign monocultures, pesticide poisoning, and social inequality. The banana republic of the 20th century is giving way to the raspberry republic of the next.

So-called nontraditional agro-exports are booming, spurred by U.S. foreign aid policy and international lending institutions, which see them as a convenient source of debt repayment. These crops are žnontraditional, of course, only from the point of view of the producing country: the fruits, vegetables, and flowers being grown are standard varieties familiar to North America. Fields that once produced a mix of indigenous crops for local people are turned to monoculture for export, as are native forests. In Costa Rica, large areas are being cleared for citrus plantations; in central Chile, for vegetables and flowers.

It isn't easy to grow huge quantities of a single product of uniform size, color, and appearance. The trick is accomplished through liberal use of chemical pesticides, 20 percent of which, according to Cornell University agricultural scientist David Pimentel, are employed solely to improve the product's appearance. In order to ensure the desired homogeneity and timeliness for the U.S. winter market, for example, tomatoes in Mexico's Culiac valley are chemically doused as many as 25 times.

For agribusiness, the attraction of growing food in the south for markets in the north--aside from rock- bottom wages and off-season sunshine--is freedom from pesticide regulation. Growers in Mexico regularly use at least six pesticides that are illegal in the United States. More often than not, these same pesticides come from the United States. According to a study last year by the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education, from 1992 to 1994 the United States exported at least 344 million pounds of hazardous pesticides, of which at least 25 million pounds were forbidden in this country. Chlordane, for example, is žseverely restricted in this country, banned in 47 others, and persists in the environment for up to 30 years, yet it is exported by the Velsicol Chemical Corporation of Illinois to Argentina, Venezuela, and several Asian nations. As recently as 1992, the Biesterfeld/Hansen brokerage firm in New York City arranged the shipment to Peru of more than 300 tons of the notorious poison DDT, most uses of which have been banned in the United States since 1972.

The potpourri of pesticides slathered on export crops in Latin America includes many of those associated with the disruption of human and animal reproductive systems (seeHormone Impostors ). In 1994, at least 52 tons of such substances were shipped out of U.S. ports every day. (The true figure is surely far higher, since the names of three-quarters of all pesticide exports are withheld from shipping documents.) These poisons take their toll, primarily on farm laborers. Handling unlabeled substances while wearing little or no protective equipment, Latin American farm workers are 13 times more likely to suffer pesticide poisoning than U.S. workers. Since a large and increasing proportion of Latin American farm workers are women (because they can be paid even less than men), and since many of the pesticides they work with are known to affect the reproductive system, the price of our winter cherries will also be paid by the next generation.

A crude poetic justice is achieved when many of these poisons return to the United States as residue on export crops. From 1985 to 1995, more than 14,000 produce shipments were stopped at the U.S. border because of excess pesticide residue, the most frequent culprits being from Mexico and Guatemala. A study by the Environmental Working Group found that 27 percent of Chilean grapes--a new mainstay of off- season supermarket bins--were contaminated with the endocrine-disrupting fungicide vin clozolin, compared with less than one percent of U.S. grapes.

Even if the United States stopped its scandalous export of banned poisons, however, there would still be good reasons for eating close to home. The farther away the produce is grown, the greater the environmental effects: from unknown pesticide practices beyond the reach of U.S. law to the energy required to transport an Australian apple halfway around the world. As a consumer, you can help shape the global economy by what you buy. If you must shop in a supermarket, you can at least choose what's in season--a good indicator that it was produced domestically. (If you're in doubt, ask your produce manager: although U.S. supermarkets are not required to label foreign produce on the shelf, shipping crates should indicate its point of origin.) Better yet, buy organic foods from your local farmer's market. Best of all, grow your own. Remember what your mother used to tell you--you should always know what you're putting in your mouth.

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