Who picks your tomatoes?

Who picks your tomatoes?

Aylin Öney Tan - aylinoneytan@yahoo.com
Who picks your tomatoes Up on the Italian Alps, at a point perched on the mountain slopes near the French border, Sestriere takes you away from harsh realities of world news. A clear sky, snowy peaks, serene atmosphere, all creates an idyllic setting to escape from the depressing broadcasts. However, in a gathering of journalists, there is no way to stay disconnected from the rest of the world. 

The theme of this year’s Ski Club International des Journalistes (SCIJ) meeting was the refugee crisis. The group, which has more than 2,000 members from 46 countries, gathers in a different venue each year to discuss a current talking point concerning world journalists of all fields. I am one of the few columnists that write on gastronomy. Pleasures of culinary art and agonies of refugee crisis may seem to be completely detached subjects, but on the contrary I find the two topics tightly interwoven with each other. 

It has been exactly a month since our SCIJ roundtable titled “Refugee crisis in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.” Some of the debates we had keep tickling my mind every time I watch the news. One discussion was on how to name the crisis. The exodus of Syrians from their war-struck country is one thing, Africans migrating to Europe for better opportunities or job is something else, some suggested. Shall we call them migrants, immigrants, refugees or asylum seekers? According to one Italian colleague, “immigrant” has a positive resonance in Italian perception; however, for me (as a food writer) it brings in mind the notorious case of migrant workers, the new work force of Italian agriculture. I murmur to myself, “Let’s be bold, and just call them new slaves…” Or, more politely, guest workers or Gastarbeiter, a term nailed by Germans decades ago. 

Just before coming to Sestriere, I was briefly in Catania where I was surprised to see that high quality tomatoes were way cheaper than in Turkey. I want to raise my voice and ask, “Who picks your tomatoes?” Often dubbed as tomato slaves, African migrant workers try to survive precarious living and working conditions in the fields and orchards of Italy. They form the invisible army of Italian food industry from the field to the table, picking oranges, or lemons, or olives, or tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, sorting them, packaging them in the most unfavorable conditions and being severely exploited. 

Of course, this does not only happen in Italy; it happens all over the world. The case of Mexicans in Florida is no different; now Turkey has another story with Syrians refugees. The phenomenon of seasonal field workers has long been a regular feature of Turkish agriculture. Since the 1950s, the cotton fields of Çukurova have always been dotted with tent camps of seasonal workers, complete families temporarily leaving their hometowns for fertile plains in harvest time. This was an annually repeated, local, inter-city migration between neighboring cities, but in recent years the whole scene began to change dramatically. The families, or in some cases whole communities, eventually became like nomads, shifting from region to region according to the harvesting time of crops. This new nomadic life style also meant no school for kids as harvesting season starts as early as April and lasts well into October. Mostly coming from the southeastern provinces, the new nomads will be more trapped in this cycle as job opportunities in their homeland are now taken by refugees. 

The previous year, I was in Gaziantep visiting pistachio grooves for early harvest. One could see that most pistachio pickers were from Syria. Quite natural. Syrian folks have the same skills, if not better ones; the fertile agricultural Barak plain stretching from Antep to Aleppo is home to same crops. Pistachio orchards, olive groves, vineyards, fields of peppers, tomatoes and eggplants; all are quite alike; even the regional cuisines of Turkey and Syria are like sisters separated by the now permeable border. 

So where were the locals? The answer was easy. Picking hazelnuts in the Black Sea region. Things are changing fast; anchovy chasing fishing ships in the Black Sea have crews of southeastern Kurds who have never seen sea before. This whole exodus from Syria is creating a ripple effect having consequences extending as far as your breakfast table in the form of Nutella jar or the tomato sauce on your pasta. When it comes to Turkish hazelnuts, there is another story to be told, worthy of another article. Turkey is the leading country in the word in growing hazelnuts, but the whole crop is practically owned by Italy. A couple of years ago, Ferrero bought the biggest Turkish supplier company, so most Turkish nuts end up in Piedmont products. Did you know that Nutella had a factory in Manisa, conveniently close to the port of Izmir?  

These are very complicated issues. Nobody has clean hands in this game. Not even us, the consumers who do not dare to ask, who picked my tomatoes? Where all that matters is money, as power will never be on the side of truth. As long as the poorer and more desperate step in to work for less, this vicious cycle will prevail itself. We cannot simply clear our conscience just by changing the terminology to a word that sounds more friendly or amicable. The terms may help, but if terms will be functional in solving the problem, let’s have the guts to face the stark reality and nail the term: modern slavery!

Bite of the Week

Event of the Week: There are two events this week directly or indirectly related to the issue. One is in Gaziantep and called the “Migration, Culture and Gastronomy Summit,” which starts tomorrow. Organized by Gaziantep Metropolitan Municipality and United Cities and Governments Middle East and West Asia Section Congress (UCLG-MEWA), it will create an opportunity to discuss refugee crisis in relation to the field of gastronomy. The other event in Istanbul is “Yemeğini Keşfet/Discover Your Food 2016,” which will take place on Saturday, April 23, at bomontiada. This year, the conference theme is “courage,” urging its speakers to discuss brave stories and open bold ideas in the fields of gastronomy, agriculture, academia and civil society initiatives.