Still Life

I asked this broccoli “Where are you from? and where are you going?”
and it said “I’m from a desert farm in El Centro, California, about 35 miles from the notorious Salton Sea, and I was living in Whole Foods on Bowery, NYC. Now I will probably go into your stomach and become part of your metabolism.”

This text is a brief notes from a self initiated research for where our food comes from. The task is to find 1. Location of its origin 2. Methods of transportation 3. Number of transaction involved between production and consumption of the goods. Through a workshop, I would like to invite others to do the same task and the information we gather will be shared online. Much of the specific information about food is unavailable to the public on the internet, thus revealing our lack of access to such information is part of the project’s intention.

The idea started in the cold morning of January 2011 in NYC, when I bought an apple that tasted especially horrible. I began to search where it came from, using the information that is available on the product barcode sticker. Few exciting minutes later, I found out it is actually from China in this website from a city Xi’an. It was surprising that the product has travelled so much for my pleasure. Following days were spent obsessively trying to track back where the food products come from. Sometimes it was relatively easy to locate exact farm and location of the products, where as most of the times the information was unavailable and the point of origin was marked only with name of the country, thus abstracting the exact path it has travelled.

At that point, my focus shifted from the initial interest of food miles and environmental consequences of food consumption, into using the travel of a food product to understand varying layers of political and economic conditions that the product has come to teach me. Learning from studies about Dutch still life paintings and its symbolism of trade and wealth, I began to think of the research as a still life of contemporary ecosystem, especially in the perspective of the first world urban space. I took pictures of every fruit I eat with the space around them as a kind of a self portrait and a still life. A bit of research has taught me interconnected relations between the third world producers of food and first world consumers of the products. For example, history of banana plantations in Ecuador and Guatemala and other parts of South America, Tangerine from Morocco and FTA, and so on. Other discoveries revolve around the conditions of creating organically engineered products are often not organically sustainable production method, and the ‘organic’ is often a technical standard that is used to greenwash otherwise equally environmentally harmful products. The regulations and legal issues involved in Free Trade, Fair Trade, Equal Exchange is interesting as well.

The tail end of the product’s journey is within the city, some products goes to commodity shops where better products are selected and displayed. The product from same origin that however lack aesthetic perfection are often supplied to wholesale stores or discount stores. Each neighborhood has different suppliers and thus it determines the dietary choices that the residents can have. I traveled to different grocery stores in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens and found surprising difference of products and price.

After this initial research phase, I lost interest in the subject matter because I became too occupied with other projects with immediate deadline. About six months later, I regained interest in this subject matter, after the Roadshow to South Korea, a trip that lead to realizing the effect of urbanization in our everyday life.

Therefore, I thought the best way to share this process was to open up the research procedure and tasks, and collectively track back and forth the food we consume. It can be a teaching tool, as well as a guideline to have awareness of our consumption. More to come.

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