In recipes for Chinese dishes you can find various ingredients – except tomatoes. The round staple of European cuisine has only recently made its way to the Asian country of billion inhabitants. In spite of that China has decided to become the global player in tomato business. Why? You will find out in the French film entitled The Empire of Red Gold.
Italians were the first to fall in love with tomatoes in the 19th century, so today their gastronomy is almost unimaginable without them. But it was American industrialist Henry J. Heinz who turned them into a global phenomenon when he started to produce his iconic ketchup in a see-through bottle on automated lines – by the way he used them even before Henry Ford did. Today, agile China has joined the US and Italy as one of the tomato superpowers.
The Empire of Red Gold doesn’t describe the story of one product – instead it illustrates the absurd situation of today’s global economy. You will learn why Italians have built factories to process tomatoes in China, why the Chinese have moved these factories to western Africa and why the local farmers have suddenly gone bankrupt and migrate to Italy in order to… pick tomatoes there.
You can watch The Empire of Red Gold as part of the Wednesday programme of the Faculty of Tropical AgriSciences.
You describe the unknown history of a universal commodity, tomato paste, which has become the raw material used in all countries of the world. Why did you choose this commodity in particular to illustrate the misdeeds of globalization?
It was by chance that I started this long-term survey. In 2011 I discovered the existence of a cannery, Le Cabanon, which had been bought by the Chinese army in 2004. I did not understand why the old French flagship of the industrial tomato was flying the red flag. In its best years, Le Cabanon had supplied up to a quarter of the French demand of canned tomatoes. When I discovered there the imposing blue barrels of triple concentrated paste “Made in China“, the raw material of the “Provençal tomato sauce“, I wanted to go and tell the incredible history of how the system works.
“The civilizations of wheat, rice and maize (Braudel) have now given way to one and the same civilization of tomatoes”. How do you explain such a global hegemony?
There were several milestones: the birth of this industry in northern Italy in the late nineteenth century; the large demand for canned tomatoes from the Italian diaspora at the same time, particularly in the United States, which stimulated global demand for this product; the invention of the aseptic barrel of concentrate in the United States and its use from the 1980s which helped the expansion of the global industry into the new neoliberal supply – the flow of industrial tomatoes could now be intercontinental. And production, that is extensive cultivation, could be relocated, particularly in China.
What role does the European Union play in this global traffic? Does it try to help trace products or does it deliberately blur the path in the name of the free trade dogma?
The European Union has a mission: to defend the competitiveness of companies. That is why it facilitates access to cheap raw material and therefore the arrival of Chinese concentrate in the EU. Neapolitan canneries make huge profits and Europeans can thus enjoy Chinese tomatoes filled with pesticides, sometimes picked by children or prisoners. The EU has put in place the so-called “inward processing” system, which allows Neapolitan companies to freely bring in Chinese concentrate without paying a customs duty provided that the product is re-exported after processing in Europe, for example to Africa. A part of the Chinese concentrate would become “Italian” as if by a stroke of a magic wand.
What conclusion do you draw from this? Do you believe that more economic “protectionism” is the solution to this kind of excess?
As an author and investigator, I do not think I can change the world: it would be presumptuous and ridiculous. On the other hand, I can share my discoveries and this way start a debate. I describe this world, I explore it and gather facts. Of course, by reporting on production we unveil the ideological framework of capitalism, often absurd and criminal. If my work provides political arguments, especially to the defenders of a strong, free and independent Africa, short circuits or tougher labelling standards in Europe or elsewhere and if it helps illustrate that „a totally free market does not work“, to use the words of Pope Francis, then all the better.