little garlic, where came thee?
It’s no surprise to me, as an average American consumer, that nearly everything I wear, step on, brush my hair with, carry my things in, or merely touch in my day-to-day routine was made in and exported from China. So perhaps I should likewise not be surprised that something as ubiquitous in my daily life as fresh garlic should come from the same place. After all, black pepper hails from Indonesia.
But no. Black pepper is another story, a dried spice historically shipped around the world from an area known even today as the “Spice Islands.” Garlic, on the other hand, does grow a bit closer to where I live. Particularly in San Joaquin Valley, California, where a town called Gilroy is the supposed “Garlic Capital of the World.”
The illusion is quickly losing its veneer. But will it ever come back, in this day in age of global produce and convenience as king?
I’ve read here and there that imported Chinese garlic had outsold US-grown garlic in the states for the first time last year. I’d heard about the outrage from California farmers, grappling with how to deal with the unexpected competition. And I followed when, in July, tighter food safety laws in China heavily decreased the percentage of garlic exports to the United States.
But let’s face it: Garlic from China is usually more than half the price per pound as garlic from California. And before everyone got concerned about the American garlic growing industry, safety issues, or freshness, we consumers all said, well hey, garlic is really cheap all the sudden. I did it. Come on, I know you did, too. But I didn’t realize where it came from, who, what, why, when or how. I mean, it’s garlic. And until recently, I didn’t even realize how little choice I had over what kind of garlic I was purchasing — domestic or imported. Because the only choice my local supermarkets in Brooklyn have been stocking for quite some time now is Chinese garlic, which is usually packaged as five bulbs in one white plastic netting sleeve. Erased from the picture are the piles of loose bulbs, indiscriminate in appearance as to its origin. (I just noticed this last weekend, if you’re wondering why the sudden tirade.) Is that happening in your neighborhoods, too?
I use garlic an awful lot. It probably comes up in more than 80% of these recipes. So when I run out of garlic, or when the rest of the bulbs in the netting go stale on me there’s no time to lose or fuss with. Perhaps with the drastic drop in Chinese garlic exports this fall there will be less white-netted garlic to go around. But I doubt it.
Or rather, I should say that I doubt that anything which might seem curious to import to a country that it itself produces will not fall prey to cheaper competition, from anywhere. In the meantime, I’m just hoping that food safety laws at least keep my garlic more pesticide-free. And come spring, I’m digging up plenty of wild garlic.
-NPR’s “All Things Considered” program from Sept. 22, 2007, discussing the impact of China’s tighter food safety measures on garlic exporters.
-Newsday article from November ’06, advocating for buying Long Island-grown garlic. -
-A 2005 report from Australia, showing that this is not just a US concern.