Behind the food

I have been particularly keen on food in Taiwan. Well that’s not a particularly new mental state for me, nor is it a surprising focus to have as either a visitor or a resident of this island. But along with the usual considerations of what food to eat, what food tastes good, and how to get food, I have also spent time thinking about the food industry. How does the food get from being production to plate? Although it’s a question that I considered while living in the States, I think I have gotten much more in-depth in my contemplation of it while in Taiwan.

 

Where did this delicious spread of food come from, anyway?

At first, the “foreignness” of food here allowed me to see it in a different light. The food items themselves are different from what I take for granted while living in the States. Of course, I ate apples when I lived in Rhode Island and Massachusetts – especially the ones that I went and picked off of trees in the fall. There was no reason to question that. And when it wasn’t apple season, or for most other that food that can’t be grown in New England, I assumed that it came from other places in the US like the Midwest, California, Oregon, Florida… But it turns out that there are apples on this side of the world as well – some that look exactly the same as the ones that I’m used to. Where did these come from? I know for sure they’re not coming a small New England orchard. Are they being shipped from the larger scale US farms or grown locally somewhere near here? And what about all the things that I haven’t even seen before – like dragon fruit, Buddha’s head and all the banana varietals? Where are those coming from? And those just are plain, raw foods – what about foods that have gone through more complex processing – like a bowl of noodles. Where did the rice/wheat/whatever else come from? Where was it ground into flour and then pulled into noodles?

 

Passionfruit (百香果) – one of the many fruits that I had never seen before coming to Taiwan that seems to be unbelievably alien and also super delicious.

As I move around with my daily life, I can’t help but notice some of these fragments of the food supply chain. Vendors on the street selling produce. Tiny plots of vegetables snuck in between buildings, in parks, and by hiking trails. A noodle-making shop (factory?) that has the size and appearance of a single car garage. The table-sized noodle machine continuously fills gallon bags of noodles that are driven off on mopeds. The large, cultivated fields on the western plain between large cities. How are these things connected – and how are they connected to reality and necessity of food required to power the people of this island?

 

There, too, is another piece of the question of food that I find continually intriguing. As an island, geographic boundaries are more tangible. What food that is not grown here must quite literally cross oceans to get here. How much food is doing that? Is this enormous travel reflected in the prices? What if it isn’t? The environmentalist in me twitches as bit as consider some of the implications of the modern-day globalized food industry. What if the things that the people of this island adore eating (like rice, tofu, fruit, meat) are all coughing out tons of CO2 as they are shipped across the world to get here? But is that better or worse that local production? As an island with some unique geology, habitats and endemic species – is it in better environmental consciousness to “export” farming to other countries and then ship it here?

 

As I crawl through publicly available government reports for information about tea, I often end up side-tracked to reports about various other economic sectors in Taiwan. In a recent binge of reading, I found myself eagerly reading many of the agriculture reports published by the US government. I don’t know if my deeper questions have been resolved (like the ones in the last paragraph) but I feel at least a little closer to understanding.

 

Here are some tidbits that I found interesting:

 

Milk/Dairy

How is Taiwan filling the endless cups of its world-famous milk tea? How is it putting cheese in breads and on all those unhealthy things that you can get at food stands?

“Due to relatively high production costs, resulting in an insufficient domestic fluid milk supply, Taiwan does not produce cheese, butter, milk powder or whey in commercial quantities, relying on imports to meet the demand for these products. The biggest dairy import product is dry whole milk powder, imports of which are forecast to remain stable at about 23,000 metric tons in CY 2013….

Taiwan’s domestic production accounts for 95 percent of total fluid milk market supply.”

I also remember a portion that indicated the domestically-produced fluid milk is particularly in demand after the scare of fluid milk contamination in mainland China in 2008 and that before that event, more fluid milk was imported from the mainland.

 

Fruit

What feeds all the juice stands? Where does all the fruit for religious offerings come from? And the post-meal fruit or the fruit that people push upon guests? It turns out that the Taiwan not only consumes relatively epic amounts of fruit, but also produces it.

“…Among the world’s highest per capita consumption of fresh fruit — about 132 kg/ person …Imports as a percentage of total domestic fruit consumption — 13% by value/15% by volume.”

Also, regarding apples, they are largely imported (there was an entire report on them):

“The apple continued to be the most popular imported fruit in Taiwan with total imports of 118,662 metric tons (US$131 million) in MY 2011/12, and the Fuji remained the favorite variety, accounting for 90% of total retail sales.  The United States regained its position as the leading supplier of apples to Taiwan, posting a 42% market share.  Local production continued a long-term decline and currently meets only about one percent of domestic demand. “

 

Wheat & Corn

“Taiwan is almost wholly dependent on imports of wheat and corn. Marketing Year (MY) 2011/12 wheat imports are estimated at 1.25 million metric tons (MMT), with the U.S. expected to hold 75 percent of the total.”

“While U.S. corn had already lost its once dominant position in the Taiwan market, the price spread between U.S. and other origin corn in recent months has pushed Taiwan buyers to switch to other sources, particularly Brazil and Argentina, at an even faster rate.”

I guess that means the price of corn on waffles is likely some hectares of deforestation in the Amazon.

 

Soybeans

“Taiwan’s demand for soybeans is met almost entirely by imported supplies, with demand for soybean meal and oil also highly dependent on local supplies crushed from imported soybeans…

According to Taiwan import statistics for the first nine months of MY2011/12, Brazilian and U.S.-origin soybeans held an equal market share of about 48 percent each. This stands in stark contrast to the 75 percent market share for U.S. soybeans during the same period in MY2010/11. Taiwan crushers have shown a preference for the 2012 South American soybean crop as local industry contacts report overall higher oil and protein content compared with U.S. beans.”

Soymilk and tofu – also probably driving deforestation in South America.

 

Rice

“Taiwan is over 90% self-sufficient in rice production with a rather stable domestic rice market.”

 

Also, finally, in case you doubted my entry about convenience stores:

“In 2009, Taiwan’s four major convenience store chains operated a total of 9,184 stores around the country, a density of one store per 2,500 people, making Taiwan the densest market in the world in terms of convenience stores.”

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