When the food relocalization movement revved up its engines a dozen years ago, I would often see maps that circumscribed “local foodsheds” by county, state, or region of our sprawling nation, but they never crossed international boundaries. But when I recently moved to southern Arizona to plant an heirloom orchard just twelve miles north of the U.S./Mexico line, such maps suddenly made little sense to me.
As I searched for low chill fruit and nut varieties to plant in my orchard, I learned that the Mission olive, fig, grape, pomegranate and quince selections best suited to my microclimate were once widely cultivated on both sides of the line, but had so dramatically declined north of the border than few American nurseries offered them anymore. When I searched for commercial availability of native foods and beverages of our Sonoran Desert region—chiltepines, Emory oak acorns, mescal and mesquite—most of the harvests were being wild-foraged from landscapes like ours just south of the line.
Baffled by this food flowing in from just south of the international boundary—for I had always dismissed it as being unnecessarily “outsourced”—I began to ask tougher questions that demolished the old assumptions I had held.
Was it better for me to source fresh fruits and vegetables from small Sonoran farms just fifty miles from my home, or purchase the same kinds that had been shipped in from California more than eight hundred miles in the trucks of Veritable Vegetable?
Are my neighboring Mexican farmers using less fossil fuel and government subsidized water than farmers in California, especially those which irrigate crops from large irrigation projects which have cost us all billions of dollars and depleted the flows of many rivers?
Are Mexican-born farmworkers better off staying in their home villages and working for lower wages, or better off migrating to the U.S. where wages are higher but the cost of living is too? Where is occupation health care more responsive to their needs? Where will their children get a better education?
Now a new report—Hungry for Change: Borderlands Food and Water in the Balance—attempts to pose such questions about our inherently binational food system, and answers—at least provisionally—some of those more difficult questions. Further, it reminds Americans just how much of our entire food supply is dependent upon labor, expertise, ingenuity, seeds, seafood and water originating in Mexico. The report, released this last week by the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center, was prepared for discussion at the first-ever Border Food Summit to be held September 16th to 18th near Nogales, Arizona.
Gary Nabhan is co-author of the book