John Tierney, writing a column for the New York Times, reviewing the book 1493: Uncovering The New World Columbus, remarks that its author, Charles C. Mann, knows better than to think he can eat like a locavore. After all, he knows that tomatoes really come from South America and that the other vegetables in his CSA food share have similarly far-flung pedigrees. Does that mean they haven’t come from the farm down the road? No. But Mann thinks that locavores should think a bit differently about the origins of their food since most of our foods–and even the earthworms we use to make fertilizer–are imported (some might say invasive).
Mann calls this “homogeneity” and he argues that the havoc wrought (my take on it, not his) by the “Columbian Exchange” of plants and diseases between the New World and Europe changed the balance of power forever. His book reads like an inventory of the spread of invasive species–scale and fire ants to Hispanola, earthworms to Jamestown, malaria to Britain, potato famine to Ireland, gypsy moth to the United States–well, you can see the pattern here.
Mann wrote a prior book covering just North and South America called 1491 arguing that the Americas were not the backwaters that most of us were taught in our high school history classes. He argues–and again, much of this is only supported by pottery and other archeological remnants–that the two continents had sophisticated cultures and lifestyles and when the Europeans arrived here they would have encountered thriving civilizations and cultures.
What does all this have to do with your backyard tomato or garden? Just that these thriving cultures that the Europeans encountered became part of the trade routes–the spice route that Columbus was seeking. And that breeders and hybridizers the world over (much to some of our dismay) have as much to do with what’s growing in that CSA farm down the road as do the farmer!