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Of mangos and manioc October 18th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

Last week in this blog, I wrote about how Native American words for crops entered English and other tongues from native languages, through Spanish (Spanish chocolate). Now it’s time for the other side of the story, the Portuguese side.

Soon after the Columbus voyage, in May of 1493, Pope Alexander VI essentially drew a line north-south through the Atlantic Ocean, 100 leagues (about 400 km) west of the Cape Verde Islands, declaring that any lands discovered west of that line would belong to Spain. The Portuguese could claim any non-Christian country east of the line. The Pope’s intention was to recognize Spanish rights to the islands of the Caribbean, since the Portuguese had previously claimed all lands south of the Canary Islands (which would have given the Caribbean to the Portuguese).  The Portuguese accepted Spain’s hold on the Caribbean, but argued strenuously that the line should be moved a further 270 leagues west.  

Just the next year, Spanish and Portuguese negotiators met in Tordesillas, in northern Spain, where Spain bowed to the Portuguese demand, and the line moved west. Fortuitously, the change would later ensure that Brazil became a Portuguese colony.

The Portuguese would only land on Brazil in 1500, but six years earlier in Tordesillas, they had insisted so strongly on moving the line that some historians wonder if Portugal had known of South America in 1494. In the end, Portugal claimed Brazil in addition to territories in Africa and Asia. Spain got the rest of the Americas and most of the Pacific Ocean. Even by the arrogant standards of sixteenth century imperialism, the Tordesillas deal was astonishing, splitting the world in half the way you would slice an orange with a knife.

Other seafaring nations, especially England, rejected the Treaty of Tordesillas out of hand, but the deal did help to avoid war between Spain and Portugal. The Portuguese set up a string of trading colonies from Guinea Bissau in West Africa to Macau in China. They took 16th century manufactured goods east, along with the names for the stuff. Many languages in Asia and Africa borrowed Portuguese words for items like “window” (janela) and “key” (chave).

The exchange of goods and words worked both ways. In India, Portuguese travelers savored a delicious fruit called maanga in Malayalam, a Dravidian language. The fruit became “manga” in Portuguese, and then “mango” in many languages from German to Japanese.

The Portuguese also brought new foods from Brazil, like a tasty nut, called “cashew” in many European languages from the Portuguese caju, from akaiú, in the native Tupi language.

In spite of treaties, the Spanish-Portuguese tension lingered, and still shows up in language today. The tropical American root crop, cassava, has three names in English. The word “cassava” comes from the Spanish cazabe (the name for cassava flour), which is from the Taino, a native language that was then spoken throughout the Greater Antilles. Another English word for cassava is “manioc”, which comes not from Spanish, but from the rival Portuguese, from mandioca, from mandióka, in the Tupi language of Brazil.  German, Dutch and many other languages also have two words for this crop, “cassava” from Taino via Spanish and “manioc” from Tupi through Portuguese.

The label for “pineapple” was also contested. The Spanish called the fruit piña, “pinecone”, because of its faceted skin. The English translated piña as “pine” and added “apple,” to signal “this is a fruit”, making an unusual blended word.  Brazilians today call the pineapple abacaxi (from the Tupi ywa-katí, “fragrant fruit”), but in Portugal it is ananás, from the Tupi word for pineapple, naná. In most of the world’s languages today, except for English and Spanish, the pineapple is known by some version of “ananas.”

The line of Tordesillas, through the center of the Atlantic Ocean, seems improbably and crudely imperialistic to modern ideals. The Iberian colonies have finally all been surrendered, but the Spanish influence on the world’s languages is still felt from the west of that line, with a Portuguese legacy on the east side.

Further reading

Brotton, Jerry 2013 A History of the World in Twelve Maps. London: Penguin Books. 514 pp. (See chapter 6).

Etymologies

Most of the etymologies are from Michaelis Dicionário Brasileiro da Língua Portuguesa

DE MANGOS Y MANDIOCA

18 de octubre del 2020, por Jeff Bentley

La semana pasada en este blog, escribí que algunas palabras indígenas para cultivos americanos pasaron al inglés y a otros idiomas desde las lenguas nativas, a través del español (Chocolate español). Ahora nos toca la otra parte de la historia, el lado portugués.

Poco después del viaje de Colón, en mayo de 1493, el Papa Alejandro VI trazó una línea de norte a sur a través del Océano Atlántico, a 100 leguas (unos 400 km) al oeste de las Islas de Cabo Verde, declarando que cualquier tierra descubierta al oeste de esa línea pertenecería a España. Los portugueses podrían reclamar cualquier país no cristiano al este de la línea. La intención del Papa era reconocer los derechos españoles sobre las Islas del Caribe, ya que los portugueses habían reclamado anteriormente todas las tierras al sur de las Islas Canarias (que daría el Caribe a los portugueses).  Los portugueses aceptaron el dominio español sobre el Caribe, pero argumentaron enérgicamente que la línea debería desplazarse otras 270 leguas hacia el oeste. 

Al año siguiente, los negociadores españoles y portugueses se reunieron en Tordesillas, en Castilla, donde España aceptó la demanda portuguesa y la línea se movió hacia el oeste. Por suerte de los portugueses, más tarde el cambio les daría el Brasil como colonia.

Los portugueses sólo desembarcarían en el Brasil en el 1500, pero seis años antes en Tordesillas, habían insistido tanto en mover la línea que algunos historiadores se preguntan si Portugal había sabido de América del Sur en el 1494. Al final, Portugal reclamó Brasil además de territorios en África y Asia. España obtuvo el resto de las Américas y la mayor parte del Océano Pacífico. Aun según los arrogantes estándares del imperialismo del siglo XV, el acuerdo de Tordesillas fue mucha cosa, dividiendo el mundo a la mitad como si se tratara de cortar una naranja con un cuchillo filudo.

Otras naciones marineras, especialmente Inglaterra, rechazaron el Tratado de Tordesillas de frente, pero el acuerdo ayudó a evitar la guerra entre España y Portugal. Los portugueses establecieron una serie de colonias comerciales desde Guinea Bissau en África Occidental hasta Macao en la China. Se llevaron las manufacturas del siglo XVI al este, junto con sus nombres. Muchos idiomas de Asia y África se prestaron palabras portuguesas para artículos como “ventana” (janela) y “llave” (chave).

El intercambio de bienes y palabras corrió en ambos sentidos. En la India, los viajeros portugueses saborearon una deliciosa fruta llamada maanga en malayalam, una lengua dravídica. La fruta se convirtió en “manga” en portugués, y luego en “mango” en muchos idiomas del alemán al japonés.

Los portugueses también trajeron nuevos alimentos del Brasil, como el sabroso marañón. Su nombre en inglés y en varios otros idiomas europeos, cashew, viene del “caju” en portugués, del akaiú, en la lengua nativa tupí.

A pesar de los tratados, la tensión hispano-portuguesa persistió, y aún hoy se manifiesta en el idioma. La yuca, o la mandioca, tiene varios nombres. El más común en inglés es “cassava”, del español “cazabe” (el nombre no de la yuca sino de su harina). “Cazabe” viene del taíno, idioma nativo que se hablaba en las Antillas Mayores. Otra palabra inglesa para la yuca es “manioc” que no es del español, sino de su rival, el portugués, de “mandioca”, la cual viene mandióka, en la lengua tupí de Brasil.  El alemán, el holandés y muchos otros idiomas también tienen dos palabras para la yuca, “cassava” del taíno a través del español y “manioc” del tupí a través del portugués.

La “piña” era otra palabra discutida. Los españoles lo bautizaron “piña”, por las facetas de su piel, como de la fruta del pino. El inglés tradujo “piña” como pine (pino) y añadió apple (manzana), como decir “esta es una fruta”. El resultado, “pineapple” es una extraña mezcla de dos palabras.  Hoy en día los brasileños llaman a la piña abacaxi (del tupí ywa-katí, “fruta fragante”), pero en Portugal es “ananás,” de la palabra tupi para piña, naná. Actualmente en la mayoría de los idiomas del mundo, excepto el inglés y el español, la piña es conocida por alguna versión de “ananás”.

La línea de Tordesillas, atravesando el Océano Atlántico, parece improbable para nuestros ideales modernos y antimperialistas. Hoy en día los ibéricos han entregado todas sus colonias, pero la influencia española en las lenguas del mundo aún se siente desde el oeste de esa línea, con un legado portugués al lado este.

Lectura adicional

Brotton, Jerry 2013 A History of the World in Twelve Maps. Londres: Penguin Books. 514 pp. (See chapter 6).

Etimologías

La mayoría de las etimologías son de Michaelis Dicionário Brasileiro da Língua Portuguesa

Spanish chocolate October 11th, 2020 by

Vea la versión en español a continuación

When Columbus dropped anchor in the Bahamas that October day, he actually had Arabic interpreters on board, because he was so unsure who he would meet on his trip. The people he came across actually spoke Taino, an Arawakan language. The Spanish soon learned the Taino words for New World devices, like hammocks and canoes, but also for American crops, like maize (maíz, in Spanish, from the Taino mahís).

Thirty years later, in Mexico, the conquistadores learned about a bean that made a nasty, but uplifting drink. The Aztecs called it xocoatl, from xoco (bitter) and atl (water). The word became chocolate, first in Spanish, and then in dozens of other languages. The language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl, was also the source of the words for tomato (tomatl) and chili (chilli), also funneled through Spanish (tomate, chile) into most of the languages of Europe.

In South America, the Spanish learned the names for quinoa (Spanish quinua, from the Quechua kinwa) and for sun-dried meat, jerky (charque, from ch’arki).

Two hundred years after the Taino discovered Columbus lurking off their coasts, the words for Native American crops and foods were still finding their way into English, through the Spanish connection. In 1697, a British pirate with a flair for writing, William Dampier, published the bestseller A New Voyage Round the World, which introduced his readers to the avocado, from the Spanish aguacate, from the Nahuatl ahuacatl (testicle), named for its shape. For good measure, Dampier also passed on the first recorded recipe in English for guacamole (Nahuatl ahuacamulli, or “avocado sauce”).

The Native Americans gave the world so many of our favorite crops and foods. It’s fitting that some of the names for these crops are also Native American. It also makes historical sense that some of these terms were filtered through Spanish, a bittersweet reminder that these crops arrived on the global stage through conquest and colonization.  

A word about jerky

Just to set the record straight, I’ve read in two books recently that ch’arki is freeze dried. It’s not; it’s just sun dried. You can make it in warm or cold weather, as long as the sun shines.

Further reading

Preston, Diana & Michael Preston 2004 A Pirate of Exquisite Mind. The Life of William Dampier: Explorer, Naturalist and Buccaneer. London: Corgi Books. 512 pp.

For the etymologies I have generally followed the spellings in the 22nd (2001) edition of the Diccionario de la Lengua Española, by the Spanish Royal Academy. Although published in Madrid, this outstanding dictionary also respectfully documents the various Latin American versions of the Spanish language.

Related blogs

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Watch videos in Spanish

Access Agriculture has 109 videos in Spanish on farming, gardening and food. You can watch them here.

CHOCOLATE ESPAÑOL

Jeff Bentley, 8 de octubre del 2020

Cuando Colón echó el ancla en las Bahamas ese día de octubre, tenía intérpretes de árabe a bordo, porque no sabía con quién se toparía en su viaje. Resulta que la gente que encontró hablaba en taíno, un idioma arahuaco. Los españoles pronto aprendieron las palabras taínas para los artefactos del Nuevo Mundo, como hamacas y canoas, pero también para los cultivos americanos, como el maíz (del taíno “mahís”). Del español, el “maíz” pasó al inglés, alemán, francés, italiano, holandés y varios otros idiomas europeos.

Treinta años después, en México, los conquistadores aprendieron sobre un grano que hacía una bebida con sabor feo, pero con efecto agradable. Los aztecas lo llamaban xocoatl, de xoco (amargo) y atl (agua). La palabra se convirtió en “chocolate”, primero en español, y luego en docenas de otras lenguas. La lengua de los aztecas, el náhuatl, fue también la fuente de las palabras para tomate (tomatl) y chile (chili), también canalizadas a través del español hasta la mayoría de las lenguas de Europa.

En Sudamérica, los españoles aprendieron los nombres de la quinua (del quechua kinwa) y del charque (ch’arki, en quechua), que terminó como jerky, en inglés.

Doscientos años después de que los taínos descubrieran a Colón acechando en sus costas, las palabras para los cultivos y alimentos de los americanos nativos seguían entrando al inglés y los otros idiomas de Europa, a través de la conexión española. En 1697, un pirata británico con talento para la escritura, William Dampier, publicó el bestseller, Un Nuevo Viaje Alrededor del Mundo, que introdujo la palabra avocado al inglés, de “aguacate” en español, del ahuacatl (testículo) nombre que pusieron en náhuatl por la forma del fruto. Además, Dampier dejó la primera receta escrita en inglés para el guacamole (el náhuatl ahuacamulli, o “salsa de aguacate”).

Los indígenas americanos dieron al mundo muchos de nuestros cultivos y alimentos favoritos. Es apropiado que algunas de los nombres para estos cultivos también sean indígenas. También tiene sentido histórico que algunos de estos términos llegaron a los demás idiomas europeos gracias a los españoles, un agridulce recuerdo que algunas de las contribuciones más valiosas de las Américas eran frutos de la conquista y la colonización.

Sobre el charque

Solo una aclaración, he leído hace poco en dos diferentes libros que el ch’arki es liofilizado, o sea que es secado en frío, congelado. Pero no es cierto. El charque es secado así no más, a sol, en tiempo frío o caliente.

Para leer más

Preston, Diana & Michael Preston 2004 A Pirate of Exquisite Mind. The Life of William Dampier: Explorer, Naturalist and Buccaneer. Londres: Corgi Books. 512 pp.

Para la mayoría de las etimologías he usado la ortografía en la 22a (2001) edición del Diccionario de la Lengua Española, de la Real Academia Española. Este magnífico diccionario es publicado Madrid, pero también documenta el vocabulario y usos latinoamericanos, con amor y respeto.

Previamente en nuestro blog

Expanding horizons

Desenredando la historia del khipu

Videos en español

Access Agriculture tiene 109 videos en español sobre el agro, el huerto y la comida. Los puede ver aquí.

Repurposing farm machinery September 20th, 2020 by

Many farmers in Europe and North America are burdened with debts due to the heavy investments they have made over the years to buy farm machinery. A new tractor easily costs 100,000 Euro or more. New agricultural policies often force farmers to change as well. When environmental policy outlawed the spread of liquid manure on the surface of the field, manufacturers quickly adapted: manure is now directly injected into the soil. But this may oblige farmers to get rid of machinery that still works. What solutions can research offer to repurpose farm equipment? These thoughts have gradually come to my mind, living in a farming village in north-eastern Belgium and observing the various changes.

Farmers creatively adapt in many ways. Our friend, Johan Hons, uses a leek planter to transplant sweet maize seedlings on his organic farm to reduce the need for weeding. Like many farmers, Johan has his own workshop where he adjusts equipment to suit his needs.

American and European farmers see the soaring prices of equipment as one of their key challenges. Besides, equipment has become so complicated and repair is stymied by proprietary software and a lack of available parts. As a response, many farmers are now buying simpler, and much cheaper second-hand tractors from the 1970s and ’80s.

Also, local service providers have repositioned themselves and taken over many of the farm operations. And the fewer local service providers there are, the more pressure they can put on farmers, often charging fees that further eat into farmers’ meagre profit margins. Many machines, like the ones that inject liquid manure into the soil, have become so big that they are often wider than the country lanes, damaging them and forcing cyclists to jump off the road to save their lives whenever these machines roar by.

But there are also positive changes in the development of new machinery, which are not about making them bigger and heavier. Until last year, our local machine provider needed three tractors to collect grass for silage. One tractor raked up the grass and filled a wagon pulled by a second tractor. Meanwhile, a third tractor hauled the grass to the farmstead, to fill the silo, before running back to the field so the second tractor could empty its load. No time was wasted. This year, I noticed a single machine picking up the cut grass. This meant that the tractor then needed to drive to the farm where the silage was made, but to finish this entire field with just one tractor only took an hour longer than with three tractors and drivers, a big savings in labour, machinery and fuel.

Due to tillage and use of agrochemicals, many soils have become depleted of organic matter and soil life. As agricultural policies for decades have supported industrial agriculture, all farmers own their own pesticide spraying equipment. So, will these become obsolete when farming transitions to more sustainable models? Or could pesticide spraying machines be used to spray the soils and crops with Effective Microorganisms or other natural biofertilizers, to bring life back into our soils and boost crop health in a natural way?

To enable the transition to more sustainable farming, appropriate machines will be required. In the Netherlands, Wageningen University & Research (WUR) has been studying intercropping for several years, involving conventional and organic farmers. By growing a variety of crops in narrow strips they were able to attract beneficial insects and slow the spread of crop disease. The researchers also found that yields are similar to those found in monocultures and labour requirements are comparable too. Reading their study, I immediately thought how intercropping would work in a highly mechanised setting. Adjusting machinery will likely be part of the solution.

With the action plan laid out in the European Green Deal, the EU aims to be climate neutral by 2050. Different sectors of society each have a responsibility to make this happen. For agriculture, the ‘Farm to fork strategy’ stipulates that by 2030 pesticide use has to be reduced by 50% and chemical fertilizers by 20% in order to make food systems more sustainable.

Clearly, equipment manufacturers will continue to adjust the design of machinery, but this also comes at a cost. To keep as many farmers in business as possible, some creative thinking will be required on how to strike a balance between supporting industry to innovate and finding ways to repurpose the already available machinery park that farmers have already invested in. European family farmers are ready to adapt, but they are also being run out of business. Policy and research should lend them a hand, by inventing and promoting appropriate small machinery that can be used to serve multiple purposes. 

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Direct seeded rice in dry conditions

Strip tillage

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The clod breaker: a rolling harrow

Read more

More nature in fields through strip cropping. https://weblog.wur.eu/spotlight/more-nature-in-fields-through-strip-cropping/  

The European Green Deal: https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en  

Credit: The photo on harvesting an intercrop is from Wageningen University & Research. The bottom photo of intercropped field with flowers is by Fogelina Cuperus.

Achojcha: An Inca vegetable June 21st, 2020 by

Ver la versión en español a continuación

The achojcha is a member of the squash family, green and crunchy and just the right size to fit in the palm of your hand. It grows vigorously as a vine and will smother a tree, if you let it.

The achojcha has an edible skin and is hollow inside, like a balloon, with striking black seeds. It needs little care. It can grow back every year from seeds that were accidently dropped the year before, sprouting with the summer rains, and bearing fruit in the autumn. With irrigation it will grow pretty much year-round.

The book Lost Crops of the Incas estimates that the achojcha was domesticated 9000 years ago. Ancient peoples loved it enough that the pre-Colombian Chimú people of Peru made effigy pots in honor of the little fruit.

We have grown achojcha in our garden in Cochabamba, Bolivia for years, and it’s a popular vegetable with smallholders. The achojcha is high-yielding and sometimes we have a basketful of fruit left on the vine which we can pick during the Andean winter. Even when we abandon the fruit until the end of the season, it simply wilts, and we have yet to see any diseases or insect pests on it. There is only passing reference to a virus in achojcha. I have seen mites on achojcha in the valley of Comarapa, further down the Andes, where pesticide abuse is common.

The achojcha is still a poor person’s food in Bolivia. It is not sold by that bedrock of middle-class cuisine, the supermarket, but you can buy achojcha from street venders. The achojcha does enjoy a certain following. If you search for it on the Internet you will find several recipes. Home cooks in South America sometimes stuff the achojcha with cheese, or with rice and meat, before battering it with egg and frying it. The versatile fruit can be stewed or eaten raw in salads. 

As Paul argued in last week’s blog, farmers should be encouraged to produce for the local market. While governments and donors have a responsibility to invest in generating new knowledge in support of agroecology, a transition towards more sustainable food systems will also require re-educating consumers on the importance of preparing the fruits and vegetables that fit best into the local agroecology.

Further reading

Cárdenas, Manuel 1989. Manual de Plantas Económicas de Bolivia. Cochabamba: Los Amigos del Libro.

National Research Council 1989 Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. National Academies Press.

.Related blog stories

Eating bricks

Make luffa, not plastic

Forgotten vegetables

Scientific and other names

The achojcha is called caigua in the northern Andes. Its scientific name is Cyclanthera pedata.

A couple of unconvincing English names are “stuffing cucumber” and “slipper gourd.”

Acknowledgement

As always, thanks to Paul Van Mele and Eric Boa for excellent comments on a previous draft. Thanks also to Eric for his stunning picture of the achojcha seeds.

LA ACHOJCHA: HORTALIZA INCA

Por Jeff Bentley, 21 de junio del 2020

La achojcha es un miembro de la familia de las calabazas, verde y crujiente y del tamaño justo para caber en la palma de tu mano. Crece vigorosamente como una parra y ahoga a un árbol, si se lo permites.

La achojcha tiene una cáscara comestible y es hueca por dentro, como un globo, con llamativas semillas negras. Necesita poco cuidado. Puede volver a nacer todos los años a partir de semillas que se cayeron accidentalmente el año anterior, brotando con las lluvias de verano, y dando frutos en el otoño. Con la irrigación crecerá año redondo.

El libro Lost Crops of the Incas estima que la achojcha fue domesticada hace 9000 años. A los antiguos les gustaba tanto que el pueblo chimú precolombino de Perú hizo ollas efigies en honor a la pequeña fruta.

Hemos cultivado achojcha en nuestro huerto en Cochabamba, Bolivia, durante años, y es una hortaliza cotizada entre los campesinos. La achojcha es rendidora y a veces nos queda una canasta llena de fruta en la parra hasta después de cosecharla por meses. Incluso cuando abandonamos la fruta hasta el final de la temporada, simplemente se marchita, y todavía no hemos visto ninguna enfermedad o plaga insectil en ella. Sólo hay una referencia pasajera a un virus en la achojcha. He visto ácaros en la achojcha en el valle de Comarapa, más abajo en los Andes, donde el abuso de pesticidas es común.

La achojcha sigue siendo el alimento de los pobres en Bolivia. No es vendido por ese cimiento de la cocina burguesa, el supermercado, pero puedes comprar achojcha de los puestos en la calle. La achojcha tiene su público. Si lo buscas en Internet encontrarás varias recetas. Los cocineros caseros de Sudamérica a veces rellenan la achojcha con queso, o con arroz y carne, antes de rebozarlo con huevo y freírlo. Esta fruta tan versátil puede entrar a la sopa, o cruda en ensaladas. 

Como Paul argumentó en el blog de la semana pasada, se debe alentar a los agricultores a producir para el mercado local. Si bien los gobiernos y los donantes tienen la responsabilidad de invertir en generar nuevos conocimientos en apoyo de la agroecología, la transición hacia un agro más sostenible también requiere reeducar a los consumidores sobre la importancia de preparar las frutas y verduras que se adapten a la agroecología local.

Para leer más

Cárdenas, Manuel 1989. Manual de Plantas Económicas de Bolivia. Cochabamba: Los Amigos del Libro.

National Research Council 1989 Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. National Academies Press.

Otros relatos de este blog

Eating bricks

Make luffa, not plastic

Forgotten vegetables

Agradecimiento

Sinónimo y nombres científicos

La achojcha se llama caigua en el norte de los Andes. Su nombre científico es Cyclanthera pedata.

Como siempre, gracias a Paul Van Mele y Eric Boa por sus excelentes comentarios sobre un borrador anterior. Gracias también a Eric por su impresionante imagen de las semillas de achojcha.

Eating bricks June 14th, 2020 by

In Belgium we have an expression: “all Belgians are born with a brick in their stomach”, meaning that all citizens aspire to build their own house someday. But when bricks are literally eaten, something has gone seriously wrong.

Some 25 years ago, during one of my first projects in Sri Lanka, news came out that chilli powder was mixed with ground up bricks. Some crooks were trying to make a dishonest profit. Ground chilli and powdered bricks are of a similar colour and consistency. Few buyers taste the chilli powder when they buy it, and as chilli is typically added to sauces, never eaten straight, a cheating dealer supplying to regional or international markets for customers he would never see again at times could get away with such a scam.  

Fortunately, in Europe we have a long history of food safety standards, regulations and government institutes safeguarding the quality of the food that enters the market and ends up on our plates. But such systems are absent, dysfunctional or just getting started in many developing countries.

Yet many developing countries have an advantage when it comes to food safety: short food chains. Control measures on food safety are less important when one relies on short food chains. In Sri Lanka, for instance, I used to patronize spice gardens where urban people would stock up on black pepper, chilli or cardamom. Over the years the customers would establish a relationship based on trust with the family running the spice garden. Even in the markets, most vendors know their regular customers, and would never risk selling them a fake product. Suppliers are motivated to sell high-quality products to their valuable, steady customers.

I had forgotten about this incidence of adulterated chilli until recently. While reading the book The True History of Chocolate, I was struck by one particular paragraph on food adulteration. Cacao had spread from Latin America to Portuguese, Spanish, English and French colonies across Africa and Asia in the 19th century.

In 1828, the Dutch chemist Coenraad Van Houten took out a patent on a process to make powdered chocolate with a very low fat content. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and entrepreneurs in England and America established their first companies to make chocolate for the masses. For centuries, chocolate had only been known as a foamy drink, consumed mainly by the royalty, aristocracy and clergy.

Already in 1850, the British medical journal The Lancet mentioned the creation of a health commission for the analysis of foods. According to the journal suspicions about the quality of the mass-produced chocolate proved correct: in 39 out 70 samples, chocolate had been adulterated with red brick powder. Similar results were obtained from samples of chocolate seized in France. The investigations led to the establishment of the British Food and Drug Act of 1860 and the Adulteration of Food Act of 1872.

A similar trend took place in the milk industry.

In Belgium, starting in 1900, machines were deployed to scale up butter production. Just two years later, the Belgian farmers’ organisation, the Boerenbond (Farmers’ League) decided to employ food consultants to check the administration, hygiene and quality of the dairies. In 1908, the Boerenbond established a food laboratory which it deemed necessary to help curb the increase in butter adulteration.

Now, more than a century later, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed once more the vulnerability of a globalised food system with long supply chains. Slightly more than 50% of all food produced in Belgium is exported, including milk. As the demand from China dropped, this left farmers unable to sell dairy, meat and potatoes. Belgian dairy cooperatives also struggled to have sufficient packaging material, as this relied on imports of certain materials.

Such troubles are triggering people to rethink how to make our food system more sustainable. For a long time, food safety regulations were assumed to be the main pillar of a safe food system, but the pandemic has revealed that the complexity of a global food system makes it prone to breaking down, leaving producers and consumers vulnerable. Over the years, overly rigid food safety standards in Belgium have discouraged farmers from adding value to their own produce and selling it on their farm. Triggered by the crisis, the Belgian Minister for Agriculture, Denis Ducarme, has just reduced the stringency on food safety control for farm-made cheese. More will hopefully be done in the near future to encourage farmers to process and sell food on their farm. In these short food chains, farmers will be motivated to make clean, healthy products.

The food in Europe is reasonably safe and healthy, but Covid-19 has shown us how modern food systems are fragile. Burdensome regulations oppress smallholders until they are not even able to make a cheese for their neighbours. By investing in shorter food chains, we can make our food systems more resilient, and bring back the distinctive flavours of local foods.  Shorter, more adaptable food chains will build trust, while leaving the bricks to those who are building houses.

Further reading

Belgische Boerenbond. 1990. 100 Jaar Boerenbond in Beeld. 1890-1990. Dir. Eco-BB – S. Minten, Leuven, 199 pp.

Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe. 1996. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson Ltd, London, 280 pp.

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