Food Matters

Extracts from a conversation between Yaser Amad, Asunscion Molinos-Gordo and Zeina Talhouni.


PART 1 —

Yaser Well, and the value of the land to the farmer, to the genuine farmer, at whatever scale, is not the cash value of the land, right? It’s the lifestyle that the land supports. Whereas because of the way investment farming here works here, it’s actually not a matter of investing even in the farm: it’s investing in the land. And so, in Mafraq in north Jordan for example, this is the dynamic. People with excess cash buy the land for the land’s sake. And then it’s question of, What are you going to do with it? You farm it temporarily… It’s prestigious, it generates a little bit of income—but really you’re just waiting. Even if it’s financially sustainable, you’re just waiting until the day that the land value is sufficiently high that you can sell the land to a factory or to a development or to an NGO that needs to expand their services in the north, or anything like this.

Asun I just have the impression that many nations today, don’t really want to relate to agriculture as such—almost as if it’s something they want to get rid of. You know, in the news or conferences for example, they’ll say something like, “This country is still depending, the economy of this country is still 80% dependent on agriculture” as if…

Yaser As if it’s a backward thing.

Asun …they still haven’t reached the point that’s acceptable, ok. As if all countries are going to be oriented towards technology or financial services or whatever. The whole discourse of “still depending” on agriculture goes on as if it means being stuck in time, doing something shouldn’t be done any more. And the thing is, this is another form of cultural colonialism. And the way in which nations and nation-states are not really taking care of agriculture as a sector has to do with the perception that, you know, it’s something that eventually will go away or be minimized.
What I mean is that the state of waiting you describe—farming as a temporary thing, farming as waiting—is not only for the businessman. I think you see it on the level of nations too—as if they’re waiting to one day become financial hubs or something.

Zeina What is the language you used with respect to Spain earlier? What percentage of the economy is attributable to agriculture in Spain?

Asun I’m not sure exactly, but I think it’s a big one. And the thing is, one of the few things that are actually still working after the financial crisis is agriculture. In fact, there has been a return to the countryside, in my village for example, where many of us who left came back. Many of my friends who were photographers, who had shops, who had businesses—now they’re back and taking over their parents’ land and working it. They are going back because agriculture, in the end, is very stable.

Zeina Exactly. Because everyone needs to eat.


Yaser But, I think part of the problem is also when we isolate agricultural activities. Agriculture gets talked about as if it consists of just farming, right? For example, when we talk about producing things like tomato paste, or even dairy farming and so on, all this is discussed in terms of “industry” or “industrialization”—as opposed to there being a continuous process of food production, from food production to consumption. So it seems to me that one way to make agriculture sustainable or rehabilitate it as part of an industrial or modern economy is, in a sense, to de-stigmatize it and that’s important. But the other way is to see it as part of a larger cycle: that it’s not just producing, say, tomatoes—but producing tomatoes, and sun-dried tomatoes, and tomato paste, and ketchup, and so on. Which, in a traditional farming community, is the way it is.

Zeina It’s like that, yeah.

Yaser You produce olives, you produce olive oil—you produce the grapes, wines, vinegars, and so on down the line. Unfortunately the way it’s working is that the secondary, or what in more modern language are called value-added products, are divorced from agriculture. They’re claimed by industry. To produce, say, sun-dried tomatoes is considered an industrial thing: it’s not part of the agricultural process. This is based on a real misunderstanding of what a traditional agricultural community is. It’s a food-producing community in the full sense. So, I think another way to maybe rehabilitate agriculture as a valuable part of a “modern” economy is to really emphasize the extent to which it’s not about simply planting a seed, harvesting and then starting all over, it’s about the whole production cycle.

Zeina Yeah, but unfortunately in the Jordanian model it’s about planting a seed, getting the fruit, boxing it up and sending it out.

Yaser But we still have access to a native tradition that’s otherwise. It’s not dead yet. Right? I think there’s still an opportunity to rehabilitate this other model that takes a much larger, longer-term view of production. Right? To where production actually means making and not simply exporting.

Zeina Yes, but I think the problem here is, from a consumer’s perspective—from the perspective of someone who’s going to buy vegetables from the vegetable market—that you are used to buying produce that’s not local. You know what I mean? So…

Asun Even though in Jordan the situation is still okay. This morning I went to the market and many of the things I bought were Jordanian.

Zeina Jordanian. Really?

Asun Yeah. I mean the extreme counter-case would be the Gulf, clearly. Because they cannot produce anything.

Yaser Yeah, we still have quite a bit of local stuff. But what’s surreal is you go to buy olives for instance—and we export olives, by the way—and you’ll probably buy imported olives. Lots of the olives on display at the olive store aren’t from here, and same thing with pickles. It’s a really bizarre thing.

Zeina It really is!

Yaser So we are now exporting cucumbers and we literally, last year, imported, I forget the number but…

Asun Gherkins. From Germany and the United States.

Zeina From Poland!  I don’t even like Polish pickles!

Yaser No, no. But at least Poland produces cucumbers. We import tomato products, which is strange enough considering that we produce tomatoes— but our largest trading partners in terms of who we import tomato products from are Oman and the Emirates. These are countries that don’t plant tomatoes.

Asun You import tomatoes from…?

Yaser Oman and now the Emirates. These are countries that import the tomato paste on an industrial scale, to produce ketchup and all sorts of tomato products. So, I mean, this is what’s really bizarre about the globalized, or whatever euphemism you want to call it, modern economy of food. There’s a surreal quality to it: we export the tomatoes and then proceed to import all the tomato products that we used to make on a village level. I mean, tomato paste is not a Western invention. It was just part of tomato harvest season.

Asun Maybe this comes from the segregation you mentioned between the production and manufacturing. Manufacturing has acquired this other scale that is not stigmatized and is also separated in terms space. So it’s true, how you have a country like the Emirates that is not a producer, it’s a manufacturer… And this involves a sort of negación—eh, negation of the raw material. You know, everything, all of the credit its given to the manufacturing and the processing and the design, and blah blah blah.

Zeina That’s crazy.

Asun The raw material is something that we keep ignoring. It’s like—ok: you cannot make a super fancy jumper if you don’t have the fucking cotton.


Yaser I’m sorry, what upsets me is this refusal to even recognize the assets that we do have. Not you specifically, I’m not saying your refusal—but it’s an enforced refusal because the language we use is all imported too. I mean, we have obvious solutions already in place. The small green grocer, for example, is a big asset that would solve the food problem in a place like LA if they had it. And we have it, but we don’t even recognize that it’s an asset.

Asun Yeah, yeah. I think if we’re looking for solutions, it’s more a matter of thinking about how to make the linkages between all of these actors who are already in place—small producers, medium one’s like you and people you’ve mentioned, consumers, and then these other invisible assets, these kinds of things that are all genuinely from Jordan, and they are here and they are not being used or they’re underestimated. This sort of thing could be done in terms of a collective project that breaks out of government projects and NGO charity. It’s a matter of actually making a living out of this activity that has been feeding the world since the very beginning but that, now, has been forced into situations of untenability. Its a matter of how to regain the sovereignty that food production and farming and consumption and distribution had before this catastrophic, very wild form of capitalism that we are living today. The solution is a network, a networking thing that should happen in a very natural way rather than in an organized and official way that has a name…


Yaser Look at that, in one hour of discussion we’ve solved the whole problem.

Asun (laughs) We have to go back to our roots. (laughs)

Yaser Yeah, that’s it! Khalas! Problem solved. What’s next? Let’s talk about Da’esh.

Zeina The recorder is flashing, what does that mean?

Asun It’s because we are laughing very hard. That’s why….(laughs)


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