The soon-to ripen Florida peach orchards or the spring preparation of Midwest soybean fields may conjure up images of local, domestic food but let’s dig a little deeper. Much of our U.S. grown “local food“ has a global beginning. The National Nutrition Month theme, “Celebrate a World of Flavors,” not only focuses on how flavors from cultures around the world can nourish us and celebrates diversity, but also describes the seeds of exploration and culinary delights that David Fairchild brought to America in the early 20th century. Those explorations forever changed the way we eat. All things local are global.
Step Back in Time
With today’s abundance of fruits and vegetables available to us, it’s hard to imagine the American diet was so bland in the 1800s. According to historians, America lacked a culinary identify as their diet centered on foods brought from England. Meats (mainly pork), cheeses and grains populated plates at mealtime. Even though the English arrived with carrots, barley and wheat, the variety of fruits and vegetables were limited compared to European and Middle East countries. In fact, it’s reported that “all things that sprouted from the soil was dubious to medical authorities” as it was perceived that woody tissue was harder to digest than animal muscle.1 Likewise, farmers were not enthusiastic about planting new crops that were perceived as a financial risk. The country needed David Fairchild.
Thank David Fairchild
Think about the food you just ate or have in your refrigerator. Are avocados, grapes, peaches or broccoli on that list? If so, you have reaped the benefits of David Fairchild’s travels. Fairchild, a 20-something botanist and son of the first land grant university president, began his worldwide exploration for new plants and trees in the 1890s as an associate with the Smithsonian following a stint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was during his initial research trip to Naples, Italy, that he met Thomas Barbour Lathrop, a philanthropist and world traveler, on the steamship. That fateful meeting began a partnership of exploration as Lathrop financed and motivated Fairchild to become a plant explorer.
The Changing Landscape and Palate
David Fairchild’s curiosity changed the landscape of America agriculture. It took two years of plant exploration before the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) officially recognized his work as part of the department. Finally, by 1898, with USDA support and continued financial backing of Lathrop, the race was on to diversify America’s farmland. During Fairchild’s years of traveling the world, thousands of crops were introduced to American farmers and consumers.1
Crops such as watermelons and avocados from Chile, soybeans from Indonesia, wheat from Spain, peaches from China, and kale from Croatia are just a few of the plants that tolerated the “new world” climate and were embraced by consumers and farmers. Likewise, Fairchild’s discoveries at a Venice café of broccoli and the more popular “raisin” red seedless grapes have populated gardens and California hillsides, respectively, for more than a 100 years.
While Fairchild’s plant introductions produced more successes than failures, America’s climate didn’t always comply. For example, the cashew was popular when introduced but the ability to grow the nut domestically was a challenge. It was soon discovered that Florida was the only tropical climate where the nut could be grown but even there agricultural challenges outweighed the benefits.1 Hence, cashews became an import crop early in the 1900s from India — a trade practice that continues today. With Fairchild’s introduction of new fruits and vegetables, the agricultural landscape of America and the world was forever changed. A global food economy was born.
The Global Economy and Crisis
Since the early 1900s of Fairchild’s discoveries, U.S. agricultural production has played a significant role in our overall economy. For example, in 2020, approximately $150 billion of agricultural products were exported and nearly $146 billion of agricultural products were imported.2 U.S. grown commodities comprise the highest percentage of exports — approximately 60% of soybeans, 50% of wheat and 20% or less of corn, poultry, dairy and beef.3,4,5,6 While global markets are outlets for less than 20% of overall U.S. fruit and tree nuts supplies, U.S. grown tree nuts — almonds, pistachios and walnuts — provide 60 to 20%, respectively, of the world’s supplies.7
With the current conflicts in Russia and Ukraine, markets will change and food insecurity will climb especially in the poorest countries. The prices of corn, wheat, barley and sunflower oil already have escalated. Countries like Egypt and Turkey — once the mecca of discovery for Fairchild — are experiencing the biggest disruptions. For example, Turkey processes the imported wheat and sunflower seeds to produce pasta, flour, oil and other foods, and sells these products to the Middle East and Africa.8 Unfortunately, many of those countries are already food insecure. Rising prices will only add to the challenges.
A World of Flavor
What originally started as a philanthropic endeavor of an inquisitive young botanist over a century ago has forever changed what America grows and eats … as well as our global economy. As we celebrate “ a world of flavors” this month, may we be reminded that our zeal for variety and taste extends beyond our borders. All things local are truly global.
1. The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats, Daniel Stone. New York, New York. Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House; 2018.
2. Barbour Lathrop, Wikipedia Page.
3. “U.S. Agricultural Trade Data Update,” U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. Accessed August 30, 2021.
4. “U.S. Soy Works with Global Partners to Access Innovations and Markets,” U.S. Soybean Export Council. Accessed September 2, 2021.
5. “Wheat Sector at a Glance,” U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Services. Accessed September 2, 2021.
6. “U.S. Dairy Exports, Top 10 Markets 2020,” U.S. Dairy Export Council. Accessed September 2, 2021.
7. “Tree Nuts,” U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Services. Accessed September 2, 2021.
8. “War is driving up food prices, exacerbating shortages abroad, especially for food-insecure nations,” by Laura Reiley, Washington Post, March 11, 2022. Updated March 14, 2022.
Want to Know More About David Fairchild? Here are a few resources:
The travels and discoveries of David Fairchild are chronicled in Daniel Stone’s book, The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats” (a book that sits on my shelf). With the availability of detailed journals and materials maintained by Fairchild and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) supplemented by interviews with his grandchildren, Stone paints a vivid picture of Fairchild’s explorations and impact. Available on Amazon
“This man is why American dinners don’t suck,” by Ron Hogan, New York Post, February 17, 2018.
“Man who changed what we eat,” by Daniel Neman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 20, 2018.