Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Grapes Of Wrath

They sit next to me on the train like an angry accusation, following me through Europe, dogging my steps.  In a week where Time Magazine chose "locavore" chef Rene Redzepi as their front page cover, I have done the unthinkable.  I purchased some South African grapes this morning at the supermarket outside of Frankfurt, Germany. 

These little red seedless "devils" flew to Europe on a chartered aircraft from what is called the "Green Kalahari".  For a few months of the year, the Orange River farms of the Upington Area of South Africa grow and export the only table grapes available throughout the world.  Special 747s and other long-haul aircraft land at an old army base outside this desert town and load up pallets upon pallets of table grapes, jetting them around the world to hungry grape lovers everywhere.

The offending grapes traveled from Upington, South Africa to grocers in Germany.  Simple choices about the foods we eat can make a huge difference, creating a sustainable future for the people of the Earth.

That makes these grapes the antithesis of the locavore movement.  Locavores only eat things that are available within a few hundred kilometers of the place they are consumed.  This helps support local farmers and industries, reduces greenhouse gas emissions from long-haul transport, and is usually cheaper, fresher and tastier. The world's consumers are starting to wake up these facts, and nothing says that better than Rene Redzepi's locavore restaurant Noma being listed as the number one in the world by Restaurant magazine.

But here in Germany the sheer incredible novelty of having a fly-in South African export so cheaply simply shocked me.  They were cheaper by half in Germany than they are in South Africa.

I have been out in the fields where these grapes come from and it is an isolated spot more than 800 kilometers from major markets in South Africa.  The systems that deliver these grapes from there to the urban centers like Johannesburg and Cape Town are also expensive.  The trucks run on poorly maintained single-lane roads, paying petrol prices more than triple the US pump price.   By my thumb-suck number crunching (and hardly dependable), the actual cost of transport in terms of carbon is about half or a third for trucking them from Upington to Johannesburg as it is for flying them from Upington to Frankfurt, Germany.  The carbon cost of flying them across the planet is at least four times that of trucking them. It may be as high as ten times.

Oranges for export to Europe ripen on the tree near greenhouses that grow other vegetables in the town of Citrusdal, South Africa.  The long trip that many of these products make to EU and US markets mean their carbon footprint is many times that of similar local products that are seasonal.
Any reader who would like to help calculate the cost, I bought these grapes in Germany for 1.5 Euros for 500 Grams of grapes. In Johannesburg they are about 2.8 Euros for the same amount.

The table-grape market in Upington and the "Green Kalahari" is the single largest cash earner along this area of the Orange River according to the local chamber of commerce.  In a land with 30% unemployment and few ways to earn an income, a collapse in the industry due to the lack of demand would spell poverty and hardship for hundreds of farms and thousands of farm workers. 

So these well-traveled grapes play a role in a desperately poor economy, but in a world with rapidly rising CO2 levels, and little being done about them, going locavore is something we can all do today to immediately make a difference.  Lack of demand internationally is in fact driving down the international price of grapes from South Africa, though it is hard to know if this demand drop is driven by consumer choice or the world recession.  It is probably a bit of both. 

All this starts to sound complex and untidy for those of us wishing to make a difference today, but the world is complex and untidy and our individual choices need to be as informed as possible.  Is the loss of jobs in South Africa a fair trade off to have less CO2 in the atmosphere?

At the Forest Ferns workshop near Tsitsikamma, South Africa, ladies sort fresh ferns for airline-supported export to Holland.  Thousands of farms across the continenet export tons of fresh produce daily from Africa to foreign markets. Even buying flowers with greenery around them can increase consumer's carbon footprint.

The farms of the Green Kalahari are not living in isolation. Thousands of African farms from Cape Town to Nairobi and beyond fly produce and flowers out of the continent every day.  They bring in valuable foreign exchange and support hundreds of thousands of people with scarce jobs.  The locavore movement, if it catches on like many hope, would spell the end of this vital trade.   Are there other ways the farms of Africa can make money without flying produce around the planet?

Often in this column there are people out there with solutions and I try to share their experiences with readers, but this issue is one we must all chart on our own.  As a journalist, my gut feeling says there must be a middle-way, one which can satisfy people's need for an income with another's need for conscience-driven eating habits. 

In South Africa most people don't eat table grapes, they are far too expensive.  They are more than double the cost of the same grapes in Germany today.  There are few major food industry distributors in South Africa, and they are often cited for cartel-like behavior.  In both Europe and America, large scale shops sell food roughly 20-50%  cheaper than South African retailers in the major cities.

Perhaps the old idea that farms must fly goods that Africans cant afford to wealthy buyers in Europe is itself outdated.  As early as 2004, eight years ago, writer Rory Carroll and I worked on a story for the UK Guardian about the buying power of the rising black middle class in Africa.  So why can't more African farmers make a livelihood by selling their produce in Africa?  In most African countries lack of infrastructure and poor government oversight often contribute to high food prices.  Although these are tough problems, they are surmountable.  Pushing farmers to open up bigger markets at home may be an answer, and there is some data that suggests the rise of Africa's middle class is helping to do this.

As a consumer I am going locavore, knowing that my choice may mean a child somewhere in Africa or elsewhere in the developing world may not be going to school because their father lost his job.  The status quo is not environmentally sustainable and in fact as mentioned above, it may be outdated.

To counter the loss of jobs, I choose to make small cash payments to offset my carbon footprint, creating a new type of job in Africa, one that builds a greener, more sustainable future.  My own choice is a project in South Africa that is close to my heart called Elemental Equity. This company is connected to Living Lands, and the South African Working for Water Program.  They help me become carbon neutral, planting indigenous trees that restore natural landscapes damaged by unsustainable farming practices. They are outlined in one of the chapters of the film Creating A Climate For Change.

Together we as consumers need to chart a new path, one where our choices are driven by our consciences, one where we don't shy away from the hard realities of those choices.  Only by tackling these hard choices head on, and turning our anger or angst into action will we leave these grapes of wrath behind us and build a better future that is more fair to people and the planet.


  1. Love this article! What a dilemma, what to do, where do we draw the line and how will we balance the scales.

  2. a well balanced article but I do know the grapes are flown out of Upington which is also not very carbon friendly but the nagging question I have is...how did you get to Frankfurt, Germany?