Culinary Geography

Melbourne Vs. Sydney Revisited

Australia is an unusual country in having two metropolitan areas of roughly equal population that overshadow all others. As the tables posted below show, Melbourne and Sydney each have around five million inhabitants, roughly twice as many as third-ranking Brisbane. It is also not entirely clear which metropolis is larger. Although Sydney has generally received the honor, Melbourne is growing more rapidity and has reportedly “snatched back its crown as Australia’s largest city, knocking Sydney off the top spot.” (Different population figures are derived from different way of spatially delimiting the metro area.)

Few other countries have such dual top cities. The only one that come readily to my mind is Vietnam; Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) both have around eight million inhabitants, with the next largest, Haiphong, coming in at only two million. Such urban duality can lead to sharp cultural rivalry, which is indeed the case in both Australia and Vietnam.

Given their shared top position, Melbourne and Sydney’s differences are worth exploring. As a recent GeoCurrents post noted, Melbourne leans much more to the political left. But how else do they differ? Internet queries deliver mostly tourist-oriented information, focused on climate, sights and scenery, and dining and nightlife. Cultural, social, and economic comparisons are more difficult to find. Several sources, however, note that Melbourne is less expensive, which might be one reason why it is growing more quickly:

The rental prices in Melbourne are a lot more affordable than those in Sydney, which is probably the best thing about Melbourne  when compared to Sydney. It is estimated that the rent for a one-bedroom apartment located in the central business district of Sydney will be approximately AUD $2,689 (US $2127) per month. The same thing in the Australian city of Melbourne will set you back approximately $1,725 (or $1,364 in US currency).

Elevated housing costs in Sydney reflect the fact that it is wealthier than Melbourne, as can be seen on the paired maps posted below. Note that the top three categories on the Sydney median-family-income map are missing from Melbourne, while the lowest one is missing from Sydney (in Melbourne it is limited to the far peripheral division of Indi). I also included Perth, Western Australia’s only metropolis, in this map set for broader comparative purposes; its income profile is much more like that of Melbourne than that of Sydney. I was surprised to see these lower income figures for Perth, as Western Australia is the country’s richest state on a per capita basis, with a much higher level of GDP per person than either New South Wales or Victoria (see below). Non-metropolitan regions of New South Wales, however, do generally have lower average incomes than non-metropolitan parts of Western Australia (compare, for example, WA’s sparsely settled but mineral-rich Pilbara and NSW’s agrarian New England on the map below).



The more important distinction in income between Sydney and Melbourne, however, is that of differentiation. Although Sydney’s wealthiest division are richer than those of Melbourne, Sydney’s poorest division are slightly poorer than those of Melbourne. The areas of greater Melbourne with median weekly household income below 1,600 Australian dollars are all located in the exurban fringe, whereas those of Sydney form one the city’s main suburban cores. One might expect such income differentiation to lead to a more leftwing voting pattern in Sydney, but the opposite situation holds.

The remaining set of maps show some relatively muted but still significant differences between Australia’s two largest cities. Regarding educational attainment, central Melbourne and central Sydney look quite similar, but Melbourne’s suburbs have a slightly larger percentage of college graduates. Suburban Sydney is somewhat more religious than suburban Melbourne, which reflects the fact that it has a higher percentage of people born outside Australia (see the first to maps below). Both central Melbourne and central Sydney, however, have large immigrant populations and low levels of religious belief. In both metro areas – and presumable across the country – peripheral divisions have mostly Australia-born populations. Regarding marital states, it is notable that Sydney’s wealthy northern suburbs report higher rates of marriage than any electoral divisions of Melbourne.

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Language, Religion, and the Changing Ethnic Geography of the Republic of Georgia

The Republic of Georgia is a clear example of an ethno-national state. According to its 2014 census, 86.8% of its people are ethnic Georgians. Ethnic Georgians are generally reckoned as those people who speak either Georgian or one of its sister Kartvelian languages (Mingrelian and Svan) as their mother tongue. Most ethnic Georgians identify with the Georgian Orthodox Church, although the Georgian-speaking Sunni Muslims of Adjara in the southwest are also included in the ethnic group. As the map posted below indicates, western Georgia (excluding the break-away state of Abkhazia) is overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Georgians, whereas eastern and especially central Georgia are more diverse.

Of Georgia’s de facto lands, the south-central area has the largest non-ethnic-Georgian population. Most language maps of the country show four linguistically marked non-Georgian ethnic groups in this region: Azerbaijanis (or Azeris), Russians, Greeks, and Armenians. The latter three groups are of Christian heritage and the first is of Shia Muslim heritage. As was explored in a previous post, Georgia’s Azerbaijani population is essentially stable. It is a different story, however, for the country’s ethnic Russian, Greek, and Armenian communities. As a result of their decline, Georgia has become more ethnically Georgian than it was under Soviet rule, a process also propelled by the separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ethnolinguistic mapping, however, has generally not kept pace with these changes.

As can be seen in the table posted below, Armenians and Russians together accounted for more than 20% of Georgia’s population in 1959. By 1989, however, their joint total had declined to a little over 14%. After independence, the Russian (and Ukrainian) population declined precipitously, dropping to less than 1% in 2014. The population of the Armenian community was roughly cut in half in the same period. The Greek population increased slightly between 1959 and 1989, but it too collapsed after independence in 1991. Most Greek communities in both Abkhazia and south-central Georgia migrated at this time to Greece.

Georgia’s Armenian population is concentrated in the south-central part of the country, although Tbilisi still has a substantial community. As can be seen on the map below, two municipalities in the south-center have large Armenian majorities, Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki, which are partly located on the sparsely populated Javakheti Plateau. The reduction of Georgia’s Armenian population is related both to local ethnic tensions and to strains between Georgia and Armenia, which are of relatively long-standing. In 1918, the two countries fought an inconclusive border war when they enjoyed a brief period of independence after the fall of Russian Empire. At that time, the large Armenian community in Tbilisi was subjected to various forms of persecution. (In the nineteenth century, Tbilisi had an Armenian plurality.) Since independence in 1991, relations between the two countries have been reasonably good. They are complicated, however, by both Armenia’s military alliance with Russia, which supports Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and by Georgia’s close ties with Turkey and Azerbaijan, Armenia’s main adversaries.

A Wikipedia article outline some of the more specific sources of ethnic tensions in south-central Georgia:

Tensions in Samtskhe–Javakheti have run high at times. One reason is based in the official Georgian language policy that does, officially, not allow the Armenian Language to be used in public or administrative offices, even if citizen and officer speak better Armenian than Georgian.

Some Armenian political groupings of Armenia and the Armenian diaspora, among them most notably the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), claim that Javakhk (the Armenian name for Javakheti) should belong to Armenia,United Armenia shall include all territories designated as Armenia by the Treaty of Sevres as well as the regions of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabkh), Javakhk (Armenian name for Javakheti), and Nakhchivan. However, Javakhk (Javakheti) is not officially claimed by the government of Armenia.

Ethnic Russians in Georgia have historically been concentrated in urban areas, and therefore have a minor presence on language maps of the country. The Russian-speaking area that does appear on maps is found in the now overwhelmingly Armenian-speaking municipality of Ninotsminda. Most of the Russians in this area were Doukhobours, members of a pacifist and long-persecuted religious sect that rejects the Russian Orthodox priesthood and its rituals. The Doukhobours initially settled in the region in the 1840s. Many subsequently moved to Canada, but others remained. In Ninotsminda, they enjoyed relatively “favorable conditions” according to the Wikipedia article on the municipality. After the independence of Georgia, however, most of them abandoned their homes and moved to Russia.

Over the past decade, the population flow between Georgia and Russia has reversed as ethnic Russian now move to Georgia to escape the authoritarian and militaristic policies of Vladimir Putin. According to the official BusinessSetupGeorgia website, “in 2015, the highest number of immigrants in Georgia came from Russia, with a total of 92,937.” This movement accelerated after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. Over the next year, more than 100,000 Russians relocated to Ukraine, mostly young men seeking to avoid military service. It remains to be seen whether most of them will remain in Georgia. It is also unclear what effects they are having on the country. According to a VOA article, their presence, along with the money that they carried in, have resulted in an unexpected economic boom, while also driving up rents into Tbilisi. Many Georgians welcome these refugees, sympathizing with their plight and appreciating their technical and economic talents. An article in France 24, however, claims that Russian emigres have found a “bleak new home,” arguing that they have not always been welcomed by local residents.

Many of the former ethnic Greeks of Georgia lived in cities and towns in the Black Sea region, particularly in Abkhazia. Another sizable population, visible on the maps posted above, resided in Tsalka municipality in the south-central region. In 1991, ethnic Greeks constituted roughly three-quarters of the population of the town of Tsalka and its environs. Most of their ancestors had fled the Ottoman Empire and were given refuge by the Russian Empire in semi-depopulated areas. Although identifying as Greek due to their heritage and faith, many if most of these people, known as Urums, actually spoke Turkish (see this 2012 GeoCurrents post on the Urum people). After independence, most members of this Greek community relocated to northern Greece. Some, however, attempted to returned to Tsalka, but found their houses reoccupied, generating another round of ethnic tension.

Religion often trumps language in the generation and maintenance of ethnic identity, as the case of the Turkish-speaking Greek Urums  demonstrates. But in Georgia, ethnic tensions seem to have been more intense among communities divided by language and national origin but united by faith.* Why this should be so deserves further investigation.

*The people in question do not, however, all belong to the same religious branch. The Georgian, Russian, and Greek Orthodox churches are in in communion with each other. That is not the case, however, with the Armenian Apostolic Church, which belongs to the so-called Oriental Orthodox branch of Christianity. Many Armenians in Georgia, moreover, belong to the Armenian Catholic Church, which is under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

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India: Milk in the Northwest; Meat in the Northeast

India_dairy_consumption_ruralDue primarily to religious restrictions, vegetarianism is widespread in India. But very few Indians follow a vegan diet in which all animal products are avoided. Milk and other dairy products, derived from both cows and water buffalos, are avidly consumed across a large portion of the country. Indeed, India is the largest milk producer in the world by a good margin, having recently surpassed the entire European Union, and Pakistan ranks fourth. Milk is India’s leading agricultural commodity, produced on some 75 million dairy farms, most of which are quite small. Beginning in 1970, the Indian government provided high levels of support for the dairy industry through its “Operation Flood,” which doubled per capita milk consumption in a 30-year period.


India_dairy_consumption_urbanBut milk drinking and the consumption of other dairy products is by no means uniformly distributed across India. Instead, as the maps posted here indicate, the country has a strong longitudinal gradient in this regard. Milk drinking is pronounced in the northwest but is relatively rare in the northeast, with per capita consumption on the state-level varying by well more than an order of magnitude. The same pattern is found on the maps of both urban and rural consumption. The only major difference between the two is the fact that urban dwellers, being wealthier on average, tend to drink more milk than rural dwellers.


Lactose Tolerance MapAt one level, the east/west dairy disparity in India is easily explained on a genetic basis. In northwestern India, the vast majority of people are lactose tolerant, and hence can drink milk without digestive problems into adulthood. In eastern India, on the other hand, most adults are lactose intolerant. (Some dairy products, however, are generally digestible by those with lactose intolerance; this is particularly the case with ghee, or clarified butter, an essential component of many Indian dishes.) Lactose tolerance in western India may be connected to the Bronze-Age movement of Indo-European-speaking people into South Asia. Although lactose tolerance has evolved separately in at least four different areas of the world, it appears that Europeans and Indians share the same genes that allow milk digestion into adulthood. As was reported in a 2011 Wall Street Journal blog post:

Researchers were expecting a similar independent evolution to have taken place in India, the world’s largest milk producer and consumer. But to their surprise, they found mutation -13910T, which originated in Europe some 7,500 years ago, at high frequency in India as well.

“India was an unknown quantity…because cattle had been domesticated independently in India around seven or eight thousand years ago, we were expecting to see uniquely Indian genetic causes,” the study’s lead author, Irene Gallego Romero, said in the statement.

“To our surprise we found that the -13910T mutation was also common in India – especially in those populations with a tradition of milk drinking,” added Toomas Kivisild, a senior author of the study.

“Not only that, but by looking at nearby genetic regions we could show that the Indian -13910T has the same origin as that found in Europeans; that it could lead back to the same few people who may have migrated between Europe and India,” Mr. Kivisild said.

India_meat_consumption_ruralIn non-milk-drinking northeastern India, the lack of protein in the diet is generally made up by the consumption of meat, eggs, and fish. Vegetarian precepts are much weaker among Hindus in northeastern India than among those in the west. In Bengal, even Brahmins—whose dietary restrictions are pronounced—are allowed to eat fish, which can seem shocking to those from western India. The widespread consumption of fish India_meat_consumption_urbanin northeastern India is probably linked both to the abundance of fresh-water fish in this humid region and to the fact that most people here cannot digest milk. Evidently, fish eating—or at least the consumption of certain kinds of fish—is a long-standing practice among Bengali Brahmins. Later, restrictions on certain other kinds of meat were relaxed as well. As reported in a 2014 post by Shankariyerh:

… According to brhadddharma purANa, the rohita (rui), shaphara (pu~Ti, shapharI), sakula (sola) etc. white fish with scales are allowed for brahmins. jImutavAhana mentions oil from illisa (ilisha, ilsA) as commonly used. However, fish that live in holes or in mud, fish whose head is shaped like a snake’s (e.g. vANa), those that look ugly and those that do not have scales were not allowed for the brahmins. Snails, crabs, chicken, crane, duck, dAtyUha (cAtaka), camel, cow, and pigs were considered inedible by the upper caste, though no doubt at least snails, crabs, chicken, and various kinds of proscribed fish and birds were eaten by the common people. 

Chicken (and eggs of hen) was not popular and in fact is still not popular/not consumed in many Bengali Brahmin families. The reason is historical and has to do with the fact that hen farms/poultries were owned by Muslims and hence Hindus had religious reservations against consuming such items. However, in recent times chicken and eggs have come to be accepted unilaterally across all Bengalis.

The high levels of meat consumption in such Indian states as Goa, Mizoram, and Meghalaya, and Kerala is rooted in the fact that many or most of their inhabitants are non-Hindu (Christian in the first three cases; Christian and Muslim in the last). I am somewhat surprised that Jammu and Kashmir, a majority Muslim state, does not have a higher level of meat consumption. Note also that Chhattisgarh, a poor state in east-central India, has a low level of both milk and meat consumption.

Buffalo Milk Production mapFinally, as the last map shows, India is the overwhelming global leader in milk produced by water buffalos. The Chart Bin page on which the map posted here is found also has maps of cow-milk, goat-milk, sheep-milk, and camel-milk production.




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The Regionalization of California, Part 1

Like all US states—and indeed, virtually political units—California is divided into a number of informal and special-purpose regions. Regional designations in California are used ubiquitously in the media, in academic reports, and in everyday conversation. They are unavoidable and necessary. But as is generally the case with regionalization schemes, the numbers, names, and spatial outlines of California’s regions vary widely from map to map and author to author. As a result, a certain degree of confusion ensues.

California regions map 1After scanning the internet for depictions of California’s regions, I assembled a number of maps and have posted them here. The first image shows six informal regionalization schemes, used mainly for tourism marketing or elementary education. As can be seen, the designation and delimitation of regions varies considerably. All but one of these maps, for example, specify a “North Coast” region, but the bottom-left map extends the North Coast southward to include the San Francisco Bay Area, a maneuver that almost no one in the Bay Area would ever make. The top-middle map, in contrast, places the Bay Area in the Central Coast region, but again this is not something that a native resident would do, as the Bay Area is habitually conceptualized as a region in its own right.

Some of these maps also get the basic geography of California wrong. Both the upper and lower maps on the left side of the set, for example, severely misplace the Central Valley. The upper-left map also misrepresents the spatial outlines of Los Angeles and San Diego counties. Of these six maps, the most idiosyncratic and least useful is the one in the middle of the bottom row. A vast swath of the state is labeled here as “central corridor,” as if its only significance is that of a transportation route between the Bay Area and Southern California. Unfortunately, such a geographically bigoted viewpoint is far from uncommon in the wealthy coastal districts of the state.

California Regions Map 2The three maps in the next set are based on counties and are designated in a more formal manner. As can be seen, the regions marked on these maps also vary to a considerable extent. Some of the regional labels found here are curious. I have, for example, never encountered the term “Upstate California,” and thus imagine that the author is a displaced and confused New Yorker. The same map also uses the designation “Inland Empire” in an inappropriate manner, extending it all the way to the Nevada and Arizona borders. As several of the maps in the previous set specify, “Inland Empire” is used in common parlance to refer only to the western slice of Riverside County and the southwestern corner of San Bernardino County, areas that are situated within the greater metropolitan area of Southern California. I must also admit to a distaste for the term “Inland Empire,” as there is nothing “imperial” about this region, and the same term is used to designate a region in eastern Washington and northern Idaho.

Regions of California MapWith these issues and problems in mind, I decided to create my own informal but county-based regionalization scheme, using the GeoCurrents customizable map of California. To be sure, my map has plenty of its own problems, the most important of which is the fact that many California counties span commonly conceptualized regional boundaries. But I do hope that that the regions designated here are somewhat more consistently conceptualized than those found in competing schemes.




Northwest California Region MapLet us begin with the northwest coastal area. Unlike competing systems, mine separates Del Norte in the far northwest from the counties located to its south. It does so primarily because Del Norte is much more politically conservative than Humboldt or Mendocino, in part because it lacks the countercultural element that is prevalent in the latter two counties. In the California 2012 Obama Vote Mapregion that I have designated “Northwest/Wine & Weed,” tourism is vitally important and local economies depend heavily on what might be called boutique agriculture, especially that focused on the two products tagged by the label. This region can in turn be subdivided partly on the same basis: more wine in the south, and more marijuana in the north, although Mendocino County scores high on both products. This region’s southern counties, Sonoma and Napa, are also more affluent and densely populated than those of the north, and are much more closely connected to the San Francisco Bay Area. Note also that Trinity County, which I have excluded from the region, could easily be placed within it, due especially to the fact that it is conventionally classified within the “Emerald Triangle” of extensive cannabis cultivation.

Far North California Region MapMoving to the northwest one finds the region that I have designated as Far North, and alternatively as “Shasta” after its signatory mountain peak; this same area is sometimes deemed “Jefferson” after its local semi-serious secession movement. The counties of the Far North have several features in common. This region is relatively poor, heavily dependent on natural resources, characterized by inexpensive housing (by California standards), lightly populated, markedly conservative in its voting patterns, and heavily White in terms of its demography. (The map shows a somewhat lower White share of the population in Lassen and Del Norte counties, but this discrepancy stems mostly from the presence of large state prisons: Pelican Bay in Del Norte and High Desert in Lassen.)

California White Population MapIn subdividing the Far North region, I have excluded Modoc and Lassen from the core counties. This move is due to the fact that Modoc and Lassen are much more conservative than their neighbors and stand out on many other indicators as well; in terms of both physical and human geography, they fit much better with northern Nevada than with the rest of California. Non-core Trinity County, on the other hand, is less conservative and has a stronger counter-cultural element, while Plumas has much in common with the Sierra counties to the south. Tehama County, on the other hand, has been placed within the Central Valley region, but it has much in common with the Far North region as well.



Sierra California Region MapThe Sierra/Gold Country region is distinguished in part on historical grounds. Owing to the Gold Rush of 1949, this was the first part of the state to be settled by English-speaking people in large numbers (along with San Francisco and Sacramento). The counties of this region extend from the edge of the Central Valley through the gradual western slope of the Sierra Nevada USA population density maprange. (Placer County, however, also includes a small portion of the agricultural Central Valley). Historically, population in this region was concentrated in a rather narrow north-south belt in the foothills, an area called the “Mother Load” after its rich, gold-bearing rocks. Population plummeted after the gold deposits were exhausted, and the local economies switched to ranching and logging. Later, tourism surged in importance, and Nevada County in particular gained a counter-cultural element similar to that of Mendocino and Humboldt counties.


Sierra California Region Map 2The Sierra/Gold Country region is currently characterized by fairly strong support for Republican political candidates (less so, however, in Nevada County), medium levels of income, moderately low population densities, heavily White populations, and low levels of violent crime. Placer and El Dorado counties are distinguished from the rest of the region by their inclusion of some of the suburbs of Sacramento and they share as well the Lake Tahoe basin, noted for its winter sports and other recreational opportunities. As California Income Mapcan be seen on the income map posted here, they are markedly more affluent than the rest of the region. Sierra County in the north is differentiated by its tiny population and the fact that it does not encompass any portion of the distinctive foothill belt. Large parts of the Sierra Nevada range are also found in several other counties, but these counties are demographically and economically anchored in the Central Valley and are thus placed within that region. In the far south (Fresno, Tulare, and Kings counties), moreover, the distinctive foothill zone is quite narrow and never supported gold-mining communities.

Calaveras County MapPopulation has expanded dramatically over much of the Sierra region in recent decades as people have moved in from the more crowded and expensive parts of the state. Calaveras County, for example, saw its population almost double from 1980 to 2000. I know this story well, as I moved from suburban Contra Costa County to rural Calaveras in 1970, when I was 13 years of age. At the time, the entire country did not have a single traffic signal. The county as a whole has changed greatly since then, although my own hometown, San Andreas, has hardly transformed at all. (San Andreas has no connection with the famous geological feature of the same name, resulting in its unofficial slogan: “its not out fault”.)

In working on this current series of posts, I was quite surprised to discover that Calaveras has one of the lowest rates of violent crime in the state, as the county has its share to meth labs as well as unsavory characters and questionable areas. It was also the site of one of the most grisly episodes of serial murder in California history. But evidently the county as a whole is a fairly wholesome place.



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The Lost World of the Sago Eaters

Sago PalmThe previous GeoCurrents post mentioned the Manusela people of the Indonesian island of Seram, who evidently incorporate elements of Hinduism, animism, and Christianity in their religious beliefs and practices. The Manusuela rely on the sago palm for their dietary staple, as do many other peoples of eastern Indonesia and the lowlands of Papua New Guinea. (I am referring here to the true sago palm, Metroxylon sagu, not the unrelated cycads [genus Cycas] that are unfortunately given the same common name.) Sago is a most unusual foodstuff, as it is derived from the pith found in the center of the palm’s trunk. Sago boles accumulate starch that is used to support massive flowering blooms; after the seeds are formed, the starch content is exhausted and the trees die back, although new shoots later emerge from the roots. To harvest the edible carbohydrates, the trees must be cut and then the pith must be pulverized and thoroughly washed out with water. This process removes the starch from the fibers, allowing it to be collected in relatively pure form.

The process of extracting sago flour is laborious, but overall sago production requires relatively little work. Sago palms either grow wild or under conditions of “semi-domestication” that entail little care, and they produce large quantities of carbohydrates. Sago groves are, in general, more productive than agricultural fields. They also produce a number of other useful products. The dried petioles (the stalk that attaches the leaf blade to the stem), for example, are widely used to make walls, ceilings and even rafts. Owing to these advantages, sago is being intensively studied by agricultural researchers who think that it has promise as a potential crop in many humid tropical areas.*

sago palm mapAccording to the conventional view, the use of sago as a staple food is essentially limited to Melanesian people, particularly those of New Guinea but including as well some of the mixed “Papuan” and Austronesian societies of eastern Indonesia. Botanical maps and descriptions paint the same picture. According to a map produced in association with the Kew Royal Botanic Gardens (reproduced here), the true sago palm was originally limited to New Guinea and a few eastern Indonesian islands, including Seram, Buru, and Halmahera. The same map also indicates that the plant has been introduced to western Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Other maps show the same general pattern. So too does the Wikipedia description, although it claims that the sago palm is also native to Malaysia and possibly the Philippines.


Other lines of evidence, however, indicate that the sago palm has (and had) a much wider distribution and, more importantly, that it once played a much larger role in human sustenance. In a 2013 PLOS One article, for example, a team of scientists claim that sago had once been a staple foodstuff of southern China. As the abstract of the article puts it:

Poor preservation of plant macroremains in the acid soils of southern subtropical China has hampered understanding of prehistoric diets in the region and of the spread of domesticated rice southwards from the Yangtze River region. According to records in ancient books and archaeological discoveries from historical sites, it is presumed that roots and tubers were the staple plant foods in this region before rice agriculture was widely practiced. But no direct evidences provided to test the hypothesis. Here we present evidence from starch and phytolith analyses of samples obtained during systematic excavations at the site of Xincun on the southern coast of China, demonstrating that during 3,350–2,470 aBC humans exploited sago palms, bananas, freshwater roots and tubers, fern roots, acorns, Job’s-tears as well as wild rice. A dominance of starches and phytoliths from palms suggest that the sago-type palms were an important plant food prior to the rice in south subtropical China. We also believe that because of their reliance on a wide range of starch-rich plant foods, the transition towards labour intensive rice agriculture was a slow process.

Although sago apparently no longer grows in southern China, that is not the case in regard to northeastern India. In a number of remote villages in Arunachal Pradesh, sago is still an important source of food, although its use seems to be declining. As reported in a recent paper by Robert Blench:

The only other region [other than New Guinea and eastern Indonesia] where [sago] is exploited extensively is in NE India, where the Puroik [=Sulung] of Arunachal Pradesh still process it (Stonor 1952; Deuri 1982; Sharma 1984; Gangwar &Ramakrishnan 1990). Peoples such as the Milang prepare it to feed to pigs but will no longer eat it for everyday consumption (Modi 2008), although it is acceptable as a famine food (Photo 5). Peoples such as the Idu also remember the processing of sago in the recent past (Bhattacharjee 1983:57).

Puroik people mapThe Puroik people, who are the main remaining sago-eaters of Arunachal Pradesh, are themselves a most intriguing group. To begin with, they were traditionally hunter-gatherers, unlike all the other people of the region, although they have recently adopted some basic forms of cultivation. Their language, moreover, is highly distinctive. It has generally been assumed to be a member of the Sino-Tibetan family, like those of most neighboring groups, but it had been little studied. Current thinking tends to regard it either as an aberrant member of the Austroasiatic family (which includes Khmer and Vietnamese), or as a linguistic isolate, not provably related to any described language family. Roger Blench, who as we saw above traces the origin of the Sino-Tibetan family as a whole to the eastern Himalayan region, thinks that Puroik is probably a linguistic isolate, based in part on the subsistence activities of the people who speak it: “The past of the Puroik as foragers, the distinctiveness of their language, and the low incidence of CTB roots suggests that it may best be considered a language isolate.”

The social position of the Puroik people, formerly called the Sulung, is itself unusual, as the entire group had been essentially enslaved by members of neighboring tribes. As the Wikipedia article puts it, “Earlier forming the bonded labour of other tribes such as the Nishi, the term Sulung indicates slavery, and they were renamed as Puroik to rid their name from this association.” The situation in earlier times was rather complicated, as conveyed in this passage from Rann Singh Mann’s The Tribes of India: On-Going Challenges (M.D. Publications Pvt. Ltd., 1996, page 389):

In their marriages, they traditionally had and still have to pay a heavy bride-price, and the people are not that sound economically to pay toward their bride-price. For obvious reasons the people had to borrow mithuns (Bos frontalis), which formed an essential part of the bride-price, from neighboring tribes… . These tribes, subsequently, started establishing supremacy over the Sulungs as they were never able to pay back the amount borrowed. Indebtedness is hence a major cause for which the Sulungs had to remain as thralls and that too for generations. …. A Sulung has developed the habit of tolerating all sorts of torture [that] his master, known as Ato, does to him because he is a Nyeru (thrall). In recent years, the Sulungs have expressed an intention to change their name to Puroik as they think Sulung is a derogatory term.

The role of the mithun, or gayal (Bos frontalis), a semi-domesticated bovine, in the economy and culture of Arunachal Pradesh was nicely depicted in Frederick and Elizabeth Simoons’ 1968 book, Ceremonial Ox of India: The Mithan in Nature, Culture, and History. This work, coincidently, help convince me to pursue a Ph.D in geography at the University of California at Berkeley, as Fred Simoons was a product of the same department. A first-rate scholar, his work never received the attention that it deserves. I would especially recommend his 1961 book, Eat Not This Flesh: Food Avoidances from Prehistory to the Present.


* As argued in the abstract of a 2008 Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety article:

The common industrial starches are typically derived from cereals (corn, wheat, rice, sorghum), tubers (potato, sweet potato), roots (cassava), and legumes (mung bean, green pea). Sago (Metroxylon sagu Rottb.) starch is perhaps the only example of commercial starch derived from another source, the stem of palm (sago palm). Sago palm has the ability to thrive in the harsh swampy peat environment of certain areas. It is estimated that there are about 2 million ha of natural sago palm forests and about 0.14 million ha of planted sago palm at present, out of a total swamp area of about 20 million ha in Asia and the Pacific Region, most of which are under- or nonutilized. Growing in a suitable environment with organized farming practices, sago palm could have a yield potential of up to 25 tons of starch per hectare per year. Sago starch yield per unit area could be about 3 to 4 times higher than that of rice, corn, or wheat, and about 17 times higher than that of cassava. Compared to the common industrial starches, however, sago starch has been somewhat neglected and relatively less attention has been devoted to the sago palm and its starch. Nevertheless, a number of studies have been published covering various aspects of sago starch such as molecular structure, physicochemical and functional properties, chemical/physical modifications, and quality issues. This article is intended to piece together the accumulated knowledge and highlight some pertinent information related to sago palm and sago starch studies.

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Asparagus Land: Coastal Peru’s Fruit and Vegetable Export Boom

The global market for temperate fruit was transformed several decades ago when Chile began to take advantage of its Southern Hemisphere location by massively exporting off-season produce to North America and Europe. When I was young, table grapes were only available in the United States during the summer and fall; now they are found in almost every grocery store year-round. Owing to the seasonal harvest complementarity, Chilean fruit exports have done little harm to orchardists in the Northern Hemisphere.

A similar but less noticed transformation in the asparagus market has occurred more recently. Fresh asparagus was once a springtime treat, but it is now readily available in all seasons, thanks mostly to exports from coastal Peru. In this case, the rise of production in the Southern Hemisphere has deeply impacted growers in the north, as Peruvian farmers have figured out how to take advantage of their unusual climate to produce fresh asparagus all year round.

Peruvian asparagus export growthIn the United States and Europe, off-season asparagus is obtained almost entirely from Peru, which is now the world’s second largest producer of the crop, trailing only China. (China exports canned and frozen asparagus, but little of the fresh product). Although asparagus is most widely celebrated in Germany and neighboring countries, Peru currently out-produces Germany by more than three-fold (335,209 tonnes vs. 92,404 tonnes). As asparagus is almost unknown in Peruvian cooking, virtually the entire crop is exported. Many U.S. growers have been unable to compete with those of Peru, resulting in plummeting production in California and Washington, the two leading U.S. asparagus producers. Peru exports both green asparagus, favored in the United States, and white asparagus, which is more popular in Europe. (The two varieties come from the same plant; to produce white asparagus, the stalks have to be etiolated by exclusion from light.)

US Asparagus ProductionAsparagus is a perennial plant that requires a period of dormancy if it is to send out the new shoots that are so widely relished. In temperate latitudes, the dormant period comes in the winter and is brought on by cold. In the coastal river valleys of Peru, where frost is unknown and temperatures vary relatively little from season to season, dormancy is instead induced by the absence of water. As it almost never rains in the coastal zone of central and southern Peru (Lima’s average annual precipitation is a minuscule 13 mm [0.5 inches]), all one has to do is withhold irrigation, which relies on perennial streams coursing down from the Andes Mountains to the rainless coast. Taking advantage of this situation, Peruvian asparagus farmers now rotate their irrigation schedules so that they can harvest year-round. In addition to this advantage, they also enjoy low labor costs as well as remarkably consistent and mild climate, moderated by the cool waters of the Humboldt Current. Also important is the fact that the Peruvian government favors export-oriented commercial agriculture. Investments in shipping technologies have also been important. As Carrier, a leading firm in container refrigeration, reports:

To help improve the quality and value of Peru’s exports, shipping lines are getting more sophisticated, employing more refrigeration specialists and making greater use of technologies such as Carrier’s EverFresh® controlled-atmosphere system and the eAutoFresh™ automatic fresh air ventilation system… . Supporting them, as well as the grower-producers, Carrier has provided container refrigeration educational sessions in Peru. … [T]he producers are showing a greater interest than in the past to better understand the shipping science and which technologies are best for which commodities, depending on various factors, such as specific produce respiration rates, tolerance to carbon dioxide, ethylene sensitivity and distance from destination.

By 2010, experts were warning that Peruvian asparagus exports had probably reached a plateau and would likely begin to decline. A small native midge was beginning to infest the fields, and competition from Mexico was a growing concern. In June of 2013 year, however, Fresh Plaza announced that such concerns had “dissipated” as Peruvian exports continued to surge. Fears about the possible decline of the industry, however, have encouraged Peruvian export-oriented farmers to diversify their offerings.

US artichoke importsPeru’s unique coastal climate has helped spur such diversification efforts. The cool, often fog-shrouded coast provides a perfect environment for artichokes, another perennial vegetable. Peru is now the world’s third largest artichoke producer, trailing only Italy and Spain, and handily out-producing eighth-place United States (134,244 vs. 53,890 tonnes). Thus far, Peruvian artichoke exports have focused on canned goods rather than fresh produce, and have thus not harmed U.S. production. The United States was once a significant canner of artichoke hearts, but competition with Spain undermined domestic production in the late 20th century. But as Spain’s costs rose, Peru and Chile rapidly gained market share, as can be seen in the graph posted here. (The graph is derived, like the other images posted here, from a detailed U.S. Department of Agriculture report written by Birgit Meade, Katharine Baldwin, and Linda Calvin.)

Peruvian Produce ExportsThe coastal farming districts of Peru are able to produce a large array of both temperate and tropical crops, due in part to the presence of distinct microclimates structured by the proximity to the ocean. After asparagus proved lucrative in the 1990s, other vegetables and fruits were added to the mix. By 2005, eight other crops collectively earned more money than asparagus: table grapes, paprika peppers, mangoes, artichokes, avocados, bananas, citrus, and onions. Although asparagus, artichokes, and especially onions are shipped mainly to the United States, the European Union is the main recipient of most Peruvian fruit and vegetable exports. East Asia also imports a significant share of Peru’s grapes and bananas.

Peruvian Produce DestinationsPeruvian growers are currently eying other crops. In 2011, pomegranate exports from Peru reportedly grew by 197 percent, aided by the Peruvian Agri Institute’s “specialized training program for pomegranate growers.” Blueberries may be even more promising. The world blueberry market is currently growing at a 20 percent annual rate, driven mainly by enthusiasm over the fruit’s antioxidant properties. Although pomegranates can compete with blueberries in terms of anti-oxidants, the latter are much cheaper and also easier to process, as the whole berry is used, unlike the case with pomegranates, in which the seeds have to be separated from the rind and pith. Concerted research has been necessary to make blueberry growing feasible in Peru’s commercial agricultural heartland. As FreshFruitPortal notes:

In Peru, thanks to access to modern genetics, we can overcome the myth that blueberries can only be grown in the mountains. It is now clear that competitive blueberry plantations can be developed on the coast. A number of factors contribute to a strong offering: light soil, good quality water, a stable climate, absence of rain during harvest, available workforce and logistical facilities.

Despite low agricultural wages, the fruit and vegetable export boom has brought a measure of prosperity to Peru’s commercial farming districts. According to a 2012 PRI report, the Ica Valley, center of the asparagus industry, is now a “boomtown” where:

Locals say unemployment is near zero. Poverty has been cut in half. And there are unheard of amenities. “There are now movie theaters as of only four or five years ago,” says Cecilia Blume. “And another thing that’s super important to me is the social revolution. There isn’t childhood malnutrition. Because in Ica, there’s work now for women – in agricultural packing.

The same article, however, notes that water is being withdrawn from the local aquifer faster than it is being recharged. Similar problems are found in Peru’s other agriculturally productive desert valleys, leading to concerns about the sustainability of the export boom. In the Ica Valley, local farmers have been lobbying the government to build dams in the mountains to store excess runoff. “Super-high-tech drip irrigation systems designed by an Israeli expat” are also being installed.

Other problems also plague the asparagus export industry. Some activists are urging a boycott of Peruvian asparagus due to the severity of the water crisis, the fact that the exported produce is sprayed with methyl bromide, and the large carbon footprint entailed by air-shipping the precious cargo to the Northern Hemisphere. An informed post on these issues found at, however, concludes by arguing that, “if we just stop buying Peruvian asparagus we will push this very poor population into an even worse situation.”

The next GeoCurrents post will focus on mapping the coastal agricultural districts of Peru through the use of Google Earth.

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French Wine Consumption and Other Intriguing Maps from Vintage Printables

Wine Consumption France 1873 MapIn conducting a simple internet search for geopolitical maps, I was surprised to see multiple returns of a map of French wine consumption in 1873. The map in question is found on a site called “Vintage Printable,” which aims to:

provide free, public domain/out-of-copyright images for you to print or download. Most of the images are vintage naturalist or scientific illustration, but there are loads of other images, too. Navigate with the gallery buttons above for many more images. Images are free, downloadable and printable.

Cider Beer Consumption France 1873 MapThe site’s images are divided into a number of categories, including medieval, botanical, animal, and portrait. The maps are placed under the geopolitical label, even though most of them are not actually geopolitical in orientation.  Still, a number of handsome and useful maps are found on the site.

The French wine map of 1873 is one of a number of maps on Vintage Printable depicting alcohol consumption and abuse in the country at the time. As can be seen from the two maps presented here, France was strongly divided into wine-, cider-, and beer-drinking areas in the late 1800s. Wine consumption was correlated with wine production, as can be seen by looking at the Wikipedia inset map of wine production areas, which I added to the image, originally found here.





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Slovenia’s Sausage Struggles

The small country of Slovenia is often noted as the most prosperous former-communist state. The Economist, however, is concerned about a possible Slovenian financial meltdown, warning that “if Slovenia succumbs, it would be the first former communist country in the euro area to need aid. And once again the badge of honour of joining the zone would have become a mark of humiliation.” Recent news reports on the former Yugoslav republic, however, are more inclined to fret about the sausage struggle currently pitting Slovenia against both Austria and Croatia.

The row began last spring when Slovenia petitioned the European Union for official recognition of the “Krainer Wurst” (Kranjska klobasa in Slovenian) as a geographically specific product. Under the EU’s “protected geographical indication” (PGI) regime, foods and drinks so classified are regulated to ensure “that only products genuinely originating in that region are allowed to be identified as such in commerce.” (Existing examples, of which there are many, include Roquefort and Gorgonzola cheese as well as Champagne.) Austria quickly objected to the maneuver, fearing that it would be forced to rename its own “Krainer” sausage, the Kaesekrainer. Austrian officials further argued that their version of the sausage was distinct from that of Slovenia, owing to its cheese filling. The loss of the Kaesekrainer name, they contend, “would be an economic blow to sausage producers and to Austria’s cultural heritage.”

While the dispute is being considered by EU officials and as possible compromises are being discussed, Croatia voiced its own objections. Although Croatia is not an EU member, it is slated to join the union in 2013. Croatia produces its own “Kranjska sausage,” which that generates some $13 million annually. Like Austria, it does not want to be forced to rename the product.

As reported by the BBC, The European Commission describes Kranjska klobasa as a “pasteurised sausage made from coarsely minced pork and pork fat, with added salt, garlic and pepper. The sausage undergoes hot smoking and is eaten warm after brief warming in hot water. It has a distinctive “mildly smoky smell.” The Wikipedia article on the sausage contends that it is similar to Polish kielbasa, and further notes that it has become very popular in Australia:

Kranjska klobasa is known as Kransky in Australia, to where it was introduced by post-war immigrants from Slovenia in the late 1940s and 1950s. The Kransky is very popular in Australia and New Zealand. The Waiters Club in Melbourne, Australia, is renowned worldwide for its wide range of Kransky dishes.

The geographical designation Krain (German) or Kranjska (Slovene) is rendered in English as “Carniola.” Carniola was a historical duchy, under the control of the Hapsburg dynasty, the territory of which forms the core of modern Slovenia. Its territory did not extend to any appreciable extent into the areas that now constitute Austria or Croatia. On that basis, Slovenia does have a certain claim. But to restrict the name of a widespread, well-established product to a particular region of origin strikes many as an extreme move, much like limiting “wieners” to sausages produced in Vienna or “frankfurters” to those made in Frankfurt.

In the United States, the move to restrict “champagne” to sparkling wine made in Champagne has made some headway, but many Americans steadfastly resist the trend. As explained by Mental Floss:

The French are really, really prickly about misuse of the word champagne. Only sparkling white wine that comes from the Champagne region of France, in the northeastern part of the country, can be called champagne. And that’s not a suggestion; in Europe, it’s the law. It has been illegal for non-Champaignois vineyards to call their booze champagne since 1891. In fact, so important is French ownership of the word champagne that it was reaffirmed in no less important a document than 1919’s Treaty of Versailles—the one that ended World War I.

But here’s the loophole: The United States never ratified the Treaty of Versailles—not because of the champagne clause, but because the Republican-controlled Congress didn’t want to see the formation of a League of Nations. And so, in America, it is perfectly legal to call your sparkling wine “champagne.” In fact, you can call your gym shoes champagne, if you’d like.


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Hot, Caffeinated, and Expanding: The Global Geography of Coffee, Tea, and Yerba Mate

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the global trade in coffee and tea. Among commodities, the $80+ billion international coffee market is sometimes said to trail only that of oil. Coffee is an essential source of revenue for many countries, with Burundi making more than half of its export earnings from the crop, even though it does not count among the world’s top twenty producers. By weight and value, the international coffee trade surpasses that of tea, but tea is still the more widely consumed beverage. According to the Wikipedia, “Tea is the most popular manufactured drink in the world in terms of consumption. Its consumption equals all other manufactured drinks in the world – including coffee, chocolate, soft drinks, and alcohol – put together.”

Economic historians emphasize the crucial roles played by coffee and tea. The early modern European and American tea trade with China was large enough to be of political as well as economic significance, as reflected to this day in “tea party” slogans. Seventeenth century coffee houses in London and Amsterdam were not merely drink dispensers, but also incubators of the stock market and the insurance industry; the original Lloyd’s of London was a coffee house. As historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch relates in his engaging Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants, the “sober drink” of coffee was widely linked to Protestant rectitude and frugal business habits. Although both coffee and tea are still frowned upon by many and prohibited by a few groups, both drinks seem to have generally healthful effects. Recent studies led Seeking Alpha to half-jestingly refer to “coffee stocks as a healthcare investment.” In historical terms, the main benefits of such beverages probably stemmed from the fact that they demanded the boiling of water, reducing microbial contamination.

The geography of global coffee and tea production shows both expected and surprising patterns. As is often noted, coffee is a strictly tropical crop that is consumed largely in the temperate belt, which is one reason why it figures so prominently in international trade statistics. Such a north/south disparity is starkly reflected in the map of the International Coffee Organization, a U.N.-sponsored  association that collects data and seeks to enhance trade. The fact that most exporting countries are relatively poor whereas the main importers are relatively wealthy is cited extensively by proponents of “fair trade” coffee, those who seek to ensure that small-scale cultivators receive adequate compensation for their work.


The disparity between coffee growing and coffee drinking countries appears less pronounced on a map of per capita consumption. Here the main patterns pertain to world regions: coffee use is high through most of the Americas and especially in Europe (with a few notable exceptions), low in sub-Saharan Africa and throughout mainland South, East, and Southeast Asia, and highly variable in the greater Middle East. Within the coffee-drinking zone, Nordic countries stand out, with Finland’s 12+ kilograms per person per year almost meriting a category of its own. It is true that many coffee-exporting countries are not particularly keen on the drink, although Brazil, which alone produces a third of all internationally traded coffee, imbibes fairly heavily; Brazilians drink more coffee, on average, than residents of the United States. Several others important producers, such as Colombia, Venezuela, and Ethiopia, exhibit moderate levels of consumption, whereas low levels of coffee drinking characterize such major exporters as Vietnam, Indonesia, and Peru.

The geography of coffee has changed greatly since the early modern era. Several places that were once redolent of coffee now drink little. Yemen was world’s first major coffee exporter, with one of its ports, Mocha, giving its name to a particular coffee preparation. Today qat-obsessed Yemen has little use for the drink. Indonesia is still a major exporter, but consumption remains low even on the island of Java, which has lent its name to the beverage more generally. ‘Turkish coffee” is famous, as once were the coffee houses of Istanbul, but Turkey today consumes little of the black beverage, much preferring tea. Ethiopia, coffee’s homeland, does both export and imbibe substantial quantities, but trouble lurks; according to a recent report, “Ethiopia’s coffee export continues to plummet due to chaotic government controls and enforcement of bad policies.”

Coffee consumption is generally quite low in Asia, with South Korea and especially Japan forming exceptions. But coffee producers are excited by prospects for growth in the Asian market, particularly that of China. Although the average Chinese person drinks only 5 cups a year, the figure in Shanghai is now over 20, and consumption is growing quickly as Starbucks and other chains proliferate. The biggest growth in the coffee market, however, has occurred in the Gulf States; according to a recent report, “The UAE has been the fastest growing market by volume for coffee in the world with coffee volume sales expected to register an 80 per cent growth from 2009-2014, or a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of more than 12 per cent year on year over the same period.”

On the production side of the coffee ledger, the biggest change over the past two decades has been the rise of Vietnam, now the second largest producer by a healthy margin. The rise of Vietnamese coffee has often been described as economically destabilizing, generating distress in several poor, coffee-dependent countries. As can be seen on the Wikipedia map below, Vietnam competes in the robusta coffee market, which is otherwise heavily concentrated in Africa.



The distinction between arabica and robusta coffee is essential. Instead of being different varieties of the same plant, arabica and robusta are actually distinct species: Coffea arabica and Coffea canephora. The much more valuable arabica is differentiated into a number of named cultivars, each with distinctive characteristics. Uncelebrated robusta is valued instead for its “robust” nature, as it is resistant to a number of diseases and tolerates relatively high temperatures (arabica thrives only at moderately high elevations with equable climates). Cheaper robusta coffee is usually consigned to low-grade blends and the instant beverage market, where its high caffeine content can be advantageous. One “variety” of robusta, however, is the word’s most valuable form of coffee by a huge margin. Kopi luwak, or “civit coffee,” generally sells for $100 to $600 per pound, and can supposedly fetch as much as $6,600 per kilogram. Produced mainly in Indonesia and Vietnam, kopi luwak undergoes a unique form of biological processing. As the Wikipedia describes it:

[Kopi luwak] is made from the beans of coffee berries which have been eaten by the Asian Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) and other related civets, then passed through its digestive tract. A civet eats the berries for their fleshy pulp. [T]he toddy cats’ proteolytic enzymes seep into the beans, making shorter peptides and more free amino acids. Passing through a civet’s intestines the beans are then defecated, keeping their shape. After gathering, thorough washing, sun drying, light roasting and brewing, these beans yield an aromatic coffee with much less bitterness.

Efforts are now underway to produce synthetic enzymes that that can generate the same characteristics without recourse to the digestive systems of civets.

The global map of tea consumption yields some interesting comparisons with that of coffee. Here Latin America joins equatorial Africa in the low-consumption zone, while Europe is decidedly mixed. Russia and the greater Middle East are at the top, and Asia is a step below. A number of countries that quaff tea in copiously quantities consume little coffee, including Iran, Turkey, and India. To a lesser extent, the same can be said of Britain and Russia. The Republic of Ireland, intriguingly, consumes more tea on a per capita basis than the UK and more coffee as well. The Middle Eastern focus of tea drinking is perhaps surprising; the United Arab Emirates takes the first slot easily, followed by Morocco, and—after Ireland—Mauretania and Turkey. Through much of the region, tea consumption, like that of coffee, has been growing quickly in recent years.

Although most Middle Eastern countries are by necessity tea importers, Iran and especially Turkey are also major producers. Both owe their tea-growing prowess to the limited presence of humid subtropical climates along the southern shores of the Caspian and Black seas, respectively. Given its relatively large population, Turkey has a huge tea market. As noted in a Market Research World article:

With a total tea volume of about 180,000 tonnes in 2004 according to Euromonitor International, Turkey has the second largest tea market in the world. India tops the world raking in terms of tea consumption with about 300,000 tonnes in 2004, and Russia ranked third place with about 171,000 tonnes. … All these figures represent consumption of packaged and branded tea sales.

The British proclivity for tea is well know, and a number of former British colonies have elevated consumption figures, including Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Guyana. The only major tea-drinking country in Latin American is Chile, which is said to have acquired the habit from British settlers in the 19th century; as is the case in Britain, “tea time,” or onces, in Chile entails a light meal served alongside the drink. In Argentina, which was economically closely linked to Britain in the late 1800s and early 1900s, tea cultivation is much more widespread than tea consumption. Argentina is the world’s ninth leading tea producer, besting even Japan. Most Argentina’s tea is destined for export, usually for blending purposes; much goes to the U.S. for the iced tea market.

Argentina drinks little tea and only moderate amounts of coffee, yet it is nonetheless one of the world’s top consumers of hot, caffeinated beverages. Along with several of its neighbors, Argentina favors yerba mate, a tea-like infusion made from the leaves of a holly tree, llex paraguariensis. Mate drinking was evidently widespread among the indigenous Guaraní and Tupi peoples in pre-Columbian times; Jesuit missionaries, who ran Paraguay as a theocracy for many years, are generally credited with domesticating the plant. Today, Brazil is the largest producer, followed by Argentina and Paraguay. Uruguay, however, is the largest consumer in per capita terms. In Brazil, mate drinking is concentrated in the far south.

Although yerba mate was long limited to southern South America, it has been spreading to other markets in recent years. Exports to the United States are quickly growing, and the drink is now relatively well known in northwestern cities. A bigger market, however, has emerged in the Middle East. Many Lebanese and Syrian immigrants and sojourners in Argentina and environs later returned home, bringing the brew with them. Some 60 per cent of mate exports are currently destined for the eastern Mediterranean, a region noted for its fondness for hot, caffeinated beverages.

The health effects of yerba mate are much debated. Advocates view it as healthful, noting that it contains vitamins, antioxidants, and anti-carcinogens. Heavy use, however, has been correlated with increased incidence of esophageal cancer, which is generally thought to result from the traditionally method of consumption: sipping the liquid piping hot through a metal straw out of a heat-retaining gourd. Carcinogenic compounds have also been found in some packaged mate products, but these seem to originate from the smoke used to dry the leaves. It could be worse; I have heard credible stories of tea leaves being dried by truck exhaust in China. At any rate, unsmoked mate preparations are now available.


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Japan to Encourage Deer Hunting and Venison Eating?

The sika deer (Cervus nippon), once widespread across eastern Asia, has been eliminated from virtually its entire range. The animal is extinct in Korea and barely hangs on in China and far eastern Russia. In Japan, however, the deer population is exploding, resulting in major agricultural and forestry losses. Authorities in the mountainous Japanese province of Nagano in central Honshu are now encouraging people to hunt deer. Hunting is diminishing as older hunters retire and as rural areas depopulate, leading wildlife officials to use traps and other expensive methods of culling the herds. A new organization called Shinshu Gibier Kenkyukai* (“game study group”) is thus encouraging people not only to hunt but also to eat venison, which it hopes will soon be served in school cafeterias.

Other groups have different ideas for dealing with the problem. The Japan Wolf Association, for example, would like to reintroduce wolves into Nagano to prey on the deer. Wolves were once present in Japan, but the two local subspecies were wiped out in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as documented in Brett Walker’s The Lost Wolves of Japan. If wolves were to be reintroduced—an unlikely event—a different subspecies would have to be selected.

A recent article in the Japan Times proposes a more audacious solution for the deer excess in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido: tigers. As the author specifies:

 How about solving two problems in one? Help save the tiger by translocating Siberian Tigers to Hokkaido — the habitat is very similar — and help reduce the deer population by introducing a predator. One could even help the flagging tourist trade, by operating tiger-watching tourism in Japan (why should India have all the fun?). Of course, this off-the-wall idea is untenable in a number of ways: Imagine trying to obtain local community consensus for introducing tigers in their forests.

For an excellent overview of the sika deer, see this article in the Large Herbivore Network, which is the source for the map posted here.

*Gibier is a French word meaning “wild game.”

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The Cherry Export Boom In Chilean Patagonia

FreshPlaza—the global fresh produce news service—recently reported on the surge of cherry exports from Chilean Patagonia to Asia and Europe. The small town of Chile Chico (population 4,400) alone exported 270 tons of cherries this year. As FreshPlaza notes, the produce firm Cherries Patagonia now inspects and seals containers of cherries in Chile Chico, which are not opened until they reach their destinations. Orchardists in the region are optimistic about future growth, as the Asian cherry market is booming.

Over the past several decades, Chile has secured a profitable economic niche as the main producer of off-season fruit for the Northern Hemisphere, securing over half of the market. Such exports have long been dominated by grapes and apples, most of which have been sent to the United States. Chile is currently diversifying its fruit exports, focusing on such crops as peaches, plums, blueberries, avocados, and cherries.

Sweet cherries can be especially profitable, but they are highly perishable, and thus demand special care. The cherry season is also brief, but it can be extended by establishing orchards in different latitudinal zones—which is key to the current Patagonian cherry boom. Most Chilean fruit production is concentrated in the fertile Valle Central in the central region of the country. The cherry harvest here is typically over by December; to extend the season, orchards must be established further to the south, in Chilean Patagonia.

In general terms, however, southern Chile is an impossible place for fruit cultivation, as its climate is wet and raw, its topography rugged, and its soils thin and poor. But the Chile Chico region is an exception, as it is located in an area of subdued topography on the eastern side of the Andes Mountains, along the shore of Lake General Carrera (known in Argentina as Lake Buenos Aires). The climate here is dry, but water for irrigation is plentiful and the massive lake itself moderates the weather. Until the 1990s, Chile Chico was a relatively isolated town, more closely linked economically to Argentina than to the rest of Chile. The opening of the Carretera Austral (CH-7) highway at that time, however, firmly linked the sparsely settled region to the rest of the country.


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Beer Consumption and Regional Trends in U.S. Alcohol Use

Our third and final post on the geography of U.S. alcohol consumption begins with beer. The first map, from data provided by the Beer Institute, depicts per capita consumption in 2009. Montana, North Dakota, and New Hampshire come out on top, although in the case of New Hampshire the figure again reflects sales to residents of neighboring states. Overall, regional disparities in beer drinking are not pronounced. Although claims that “As a rule of thumb, the colder the state, the more beer consumption,” no such rule is borne out: compare, for example, Alaska and Hawaii or New York and Mississippi. A vague zone of low consumption is apparent in the Mid-Atlantic region, a region of high consumption is visible in the north center-west, and Utah, as always, is strikingly dry, but that is about all one can say.

The situation in 1970, depicted on the second map, was conspicuously different. At that time, the Southeast was a land of little beer, the Middle Atlantic consumed beer moderately, and the north center-west included both heavy- and light-drinking states. These regions no longer exist; U.S. beer consumption has undergone regional convergence, albeit not to the same extent as wine drinking.

Although climate does not in fact play much of a role in alcohol consumption, religion does. Utah’s consistently low ranking reflects the fact that the majority of its people belong to the tee-totaling Mormon Church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). Yet in the 1970s, Utah’s figures were not appreciably lower than those of the Deep South (excluding Florida and Louisiana). At the time, the residents of Alabama drank less than those of Utah, at least in terms of legal alcohol sales. The Southeast’s formerly dry ways also reflect the geography of religion, as the dominant Protestant sects of the region are historically prohibitionist. Through much of the Southeast, alcohol bans at the local level persist. More than half of the counties in Arkansas are completely “dry,” and alcohol sales are prohibited statewide on Sundays. Evangelical Protestantism also plays a role in the lower drinking rates of the Great Plains states. In the Dakotas, alcohol avoidance was linked to heavy settlement by Norwegian Lutherans, who were far more abstemious than their German counterparts.

If religious beliefs once restrained alcohol use in the Southeast and Great Plains, their effects today are muted. Although this is still the most devout part of the country, religious adherence in the region no longer correlates closely with alcohol avoidance. Alabama and Georgia, as well the Dakotas, have transitioned from very low to moderate levels of consumption. People in the upper South and southern Great Plains still drink less than other Americans, but they imbibe far more than their parents did. The greatest single transformation has been that of beer drinking in South Dakota, which has gone from a light to heavy consumption state.

The transformed drinking patterns of the formerly dry parts of the country might be linked to changing priorities among Protestant leaders. In previous generations, ministers often focused on reforming the sinful ways of their congregation – which often meant drinking, especially for men. Preaching today tends to be more positive and inspirational; as Pastor Jeffrey MacDonald recently complained in a New York Times opinion piece, “churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them.” As a result, the moral compass of Protestant fundamentalism increasingly turns from the behavior of the congregation to that of society at large, emphasizing issues like abortion or gay marriage. One can only speculate about the role that this shift has played in allowing drinking behavior in the Bible Belt to converge toward the national norm. Such conditions do not obtain in Utah, largely because the Latter Day Saints have a much stronger doctrinal prohibition against alcohol use than Southern Baptists, Evangelical Lutherans, or even Pentecostals.

The decline of drinking in the Northeastern, Great Lakes, and Pacific states is more secular in nature. I suspect that it is linked to increasing intolerance for drunk driving and other forms of impaired behavior. Increased competition also plays a role. It is hard to imagine trying to succeed in a New York advertising agency today while quaffing as much as the characters in the television show Mad Men.

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The Regional Convergence of Wine Drinking in the United States

As we saw yesterday, regional disparities in alcohol consumption in the United States have diminished significantly in recent decades. But “alcoholic beverage” is a broad category, and in different parts of the country, people favor different drinks. Have beverage preferences converged as well? Today’s post examines wine consumption in the United States, again pairing maps depicting the situations in 1970 and 2007, derived from data supplied by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.*

The first map, showing consumption in 2007, reveals marked regional differences. Wine drinking is much more prevalent in New England and the far West than it is across the South and in the Great Plains. Residents of Nevada evidently consumed more than six times the amount of wine in 2007 than residents of West Virginia.

But regardless of its current imbalance, wine drinking has undergone pronounced regional convergence. In 1970, as the second map shows, wine was popular in the Northeast and especially the far West; in most of the country, consumption was negligible. In that year, residents of Californians drank more than eleven times more wine than inhabitants of Iowa. Since then, per capita consumption in Iowa has more than doubled, while that in California has dropped. Californians now drink only about three times as much wine as Iowans.

Unlike alcohol consumption in general, wine drinking has been increasing in the United States. The average American drank 0.26 gallons of wine a year in 1934: by 1970 that figure had increased to 1.31, in 1990 it reached 2.05, and in 2009 it stood at 2.5. But California, the undisputed center of the U.S. wine industry, has bucked the trend. Per capita wine consumption in the Golden State dropped by roughly 22 percent from its peak year in 1980 to 2007. Presumably, the influx of Hispanics into the state has been responsible for much of this decline.

*The data set itself is admittedly somewhat suspect, as it places Idaho as tied with New Hampshire as the country’s top wine drinking state. Other sources peg Idaho’s wine drinking at a much lower level; see, for example, the Many Eyes map posted above. Idaho is a relatively rural state with a large Mormon population – not exactly conducive conditions for heavy wine drinking.

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The Convergence of Drinking Habits in the United States, 1970-2007

The United States has experienced a major rifting of its political landscape in recent decades as the Democratic Party has solidified its position in the Northeast and Pacific Coast, and the Republican Party has done the same in the Southeast, Great Plains, and much of the mountain West. Scholars debate the intensity of the divide; some see a disunited country of red and blue blocks, others a mostly purple land of nationally competitive political parties. The United States certainly does not face the threatening electoral splits found in Ukraine, Bolivia, or Pakistan, but its voting patterns are much more geographically skewed than those of a number of other countries, including Chile (see the earlier Geocurrents postings on these countries).

Some writers link political divergence with cultural divergence, contending that the liberal and conservative parts of the country are growing more separate not just in voting behavior but also in the conduct of everyday life. But are the people of the so-called red and blue states truly diverging in regard to what they eat, drink, wear, listen to, watch on television, and so on? Some evidence suggests that the opposite is occurring, and that the politically disparate parts of the country are actually converging in regard to many aspects of daily behavior. This week Geocurrents will examine cultural differentiation in the United States through one lens, that of alcohol consumption. Drinking habits tend to be culturally specific, freighted, and revealing, and in the U.S., the evidence on this front points undeniably toward convergence.

The first map above purports to show alcohol consumption by state per capita (excluding persons under fourteen years of age) in 2007, as measured in gallons of total ethanol. The data on which it is based, however, comes from sales rather than consumption, thus missing the transport of alcohol across state lines. New Hampshire’s top position stems largely from its lack of an alcohol tax, which entices shoppers from Massachusetts and other neighboring states. Number-two Nevada’s figures are themselves inflated by tourism, as much of the drinking in Las Vegas is done by nonresidents. Still, it still seems safe to regard Nevadans as the country’s heaviest drinkers. The difference between their per-capita consumption and those of neighboring Utah, the most abstemious state in the union, is roughly three-fold (4.22 vs. 1.34 gallons). That gap is substantial but not profound; the difference in Europe between the wet Czech Republic and dry Albania is more than six-fold.

Overall, the basic geographical pattern revealed by the map is relatively clear. A zone of light drinking is evident in the upper South* and central Great Plains, while zones of heavier drinking are found to the north and west. Strikingly, however, this divide bears no resemblance to the blue-state/red-state pattern of recent elections. In regard to alcohol consumption, New York looks much like South Carolina, Michigan resembles Alabama, and Texas and California look much the same.

Go back to 1970, however, and the picture looks very different. Forty years ago, Nevadans consumed more than four times as much alcohol as residents of Alabama (5.58 vs. 1.38 gallons). At that time, the Deep South (excluding aberrant Florida) clearly stood out for its low alcohol consumption, whereas the Northeast, Great Lakes region, and West (excluding Utah) had much higher rates of imbibing. At the time, the so-called Bible Belt was clearly evident on the map of alcohol sales. Today the correlation no longer holds.

The final map in this series shows the change in per capita alcohol consumption between 1970 and 2007. For the United States as a whole, drinking has declined, dropping from 2.52 gallons of ethanol per person in 1970 to 2.31 in 2007. In almost half of the states, however, consumption has increased in the same period. States with historically low levels of alcohol use have registered gains, while most states with high levels have seen losses. (Exceptions include increasingly light-drinking Utah and increasingly heavy-drinking Delaware.) The northeast in particular has seen a sharp decline; New York’s per capita consumption dropped by almost a gallon between 1970 and 2007. In contrast, the Southeast, along with some of the Great Plains states, registered major gains. The map that charts these changes, unlike the previous two, does bear a fairly strong resemblance to the “red-and-blue” maps of the 2004 and 2008 U.S. presidential elections. But it does so in an inverted sense: the two regions of the country stand apart precisely because they are coming together.

*The Southeastern Appalachian region is noted as the traditional center of illegal alcohol (“moonshine”) production, which escapes official notice and is thus not included in figures such as those used here. As such, it is likely that alcohol consumption in the upper South is, and has long been, higher than the maps indicate. Even so, it is clear that licit drinking behavior in the United States has substantially converged over the past forty years.

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The Guinness Phenomenon in Nigeria and Cameroon

Nigeria and Cameroon may have their differences, but they share a passion for Guinness Stout. Guinness ships out unfermented wort extract from Dublin, but the beverage sold in Africa is brewed on the continent, and has been for decades. While Guinness sells strongly throughout West Africa, it is wildly popular in Nigeria and Cameroon.

Nigeria consumes more Guinness than any country other than the United Kingdom, surpassing even Ireland. Nigerian Guinness is tailored to the local market. It is made from sorghum and corn (maize) rather than barley, and is bitterer, with a higher alcohol content, than the original product. Winning advertising campaigns have linked the dark brew to sexual potency. “I like Guinness,” a Nigerian man recently reported, “because it is bitter, it is good for you … and it gives you power, especially for sexual intercourse.”

Nigerian Guinness has been much criticized for the sexual innuendo of its ad campaigns. It is also attacked for its expense; many men exhaust their earnings on the two-dollar bottles. But Guinness Nigeria, a largely autonomous subsidiary of the global beverage giant Diageo, has plenty of defenders. They laud it for its corporate social responsibility, noting that it finances potable water projects and supports African athletics and cultural programs. They also note that Guinness Nigeria is currently expanding, unlike most local subsidiaries of foreign multinationals. As one article put it, “A success story like Guinness in Nigeria highlights the potential for trade and foreign investment in Africa that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke about … when she addressed an African trade convention in Kenya.”

In Cameroon, as in Nigeria, the bitter beer is beloved. Stories of Guinness trucks venturing into Cameroonian outback over some of the world’s worst roads have an epic quality. Guinness Cameroon, a separate subsidiary, currently imports all of its grain, due to the “underdeveloped nature of Cameroonian agriculture.” The company is planning, however, to promote “smallholder farmer production of sorghum” to procure local supplies. If successful, the project will “provide support to approximately 4,000 North Cameroonian farming families, an estimated 24,000 persons.”

Northern Cameroon, like northern Nigeria, is a predominantly Muslim area, which is potentially problematic for any beer-related venture. Most of northern Nigeria is currently under Sharia (Islamic) law, forbidding the sale of alcoholic beverages to Muslim residents. Non-Muslims are supposedly exempt, but Islamic stalwarts seek complete prohibition. In early August 2010, tensions in the northern city of Kano came to a head when “over a dozen veiled female sharia police, called Hisbah, destroyed the beer bottles with sticks amid shouts of ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is Great) on the outskirts of the northern city in a ceremony. The ceremony was attended by government officials as part of ‘efforts to rid the state of immorality.’” An estimate 80,000 bottles of beer were smashed.

The Wikipedia’s map of global per capita beer consumption, which notably highlights the Republic of Ireland and the Czech Republic, unfortunately leaves most of Africa blank. Rabobank’s more comprehensive map, reproduced above, does show relatively high levels of consumption in Cameroon as well as in southern Africa. All such global maps of beer consumption, however, underestimate Africa’s share, as a great deal of African beer is brewed at home or in tiny local breweries, escaping official notice.

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