Olive Oil production in Morocco: so many questions

Olives close up

No standard salad would be complete without olive oil. Our friends the lettuce, tomato and cucumber now come automatically accompanied by the vinegar and the oil, the oil and the vinegar. Perhaps in a bottle, perhaps in a sachet, perhaps in some kind of over complicated vinaigrette processed by a supermarket near you, along with lots of salt and some corn syrup, a 21st century salad in the Western world would be naked without an olive dressing.

This weekend, after an intensive academic seminar in Morocco[1], we studious seminar attendees were rewarded with a field trip. So I was taken out to visit three agricultural holdings in action. They all grew olives, but apart from that, had little in common. These three: large, medium and small producers in turn gave us a hugely insightful opportunity to witness agricultural change in action. Since the turn of the millennium the large site, on previously colonial, then state-held land had been an apple orchard and had now turned to olive oil. The medium one had been focused on cattle, making use of previous common land, that was now enclosed land, and was now diversifying with oil, watermelons, and more. The small producer produced a full range of things including olives for their own oil and most recently had established a side income in both fish and honey production.

Firstly, we learnt how to make money. Morocco’s heavily financed agricultural development programme, Plan Maroc Vert, which aims to intensify the agricultural system into a new-age competitive beacon of the modern food system, offers attractive incentives to spruce up agriculture in the country with new machines. All you need is to write a proposal (a report), have money to invest (from bank credit perhaps) and an impressive part of your money will be returned to you in state subsidies within two years.

So, for example, all three of the small, medium and large producers we visited, had benefited from a 100% state subsidy for irrigation of their crops. In the case of the ‘super-intensive’ large producer this meant state funding for the irrigation of 65,780[2] olive trees from groundwater on a rapidly declining water table. Some of the more landscape-savvy of the seminar group reminded us that olive trees had been grown in the region for centuries precisely because they did not need this kind of constant watering but could grow deep roots and access scarce water themselves. This, however, is not of interest to the ‘super-intensive’ producer. This producer is simply interested in the logic of economic growth, which in this case says: plant the trees closer, and add the chemical nutrients to the water while you’re at it. And so, these 65,780 trees are watered with the addition of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and ammonium, yet no studies are evident of what all these substances may be doing to the groundwater. By any other logic this would be a big concern, nitrogen pollution, particularly. Nitrogen pollution of water supplies, or more simply, of the nitrogen cycle, is one of the only planetary ecosystem boundaries that we have already crossed as a human race. This was not relevant in the lesson of how to make money.

Yet, I work with people, so where were they in the Moroccan olive grove? Well, it seems they have been replaced by a machine in this super-intensive oil production. The company, with links to power as far up as it goes, has invested in a machine that drives over the trees like a bridge. It shakes their branches and collects their olives.  So much for an investment in rural employment.

Some new olive trees defy the machine but are pretty un-reliable as employers too. These trees that the machine can’t manage provide jobs for only a very precarious seasonal and short-term workforce. I was told that 100 people would be employed for a space of around 200 hectares, and these jobs would last 2-3 months. The company assured us though that these workers would get both contracts and, in order to have those contracts, bank accounts. Thank goodness the banks aren’t losing out.

I should be kinder in tone about the small and medium sized farmers that we visited. Not only did their olive oil taste a lot richer, but they invited us to tea, and allowed us to share their experience of oil production more closely.  They humoured our partial language skills and our many, many questions. This was the second major thing we learnt on the trip – we were a team. We were a slightly chaotic, and erratic team, but really quite effective. A little like slugs on a cabbage, we chewed up every bit of information every which way.

Releasing a group of 13 researchers at a family farm, was a bit like inviting children to a playground, or providing clowns with an audience. Each of us found something to play with, interact with, reflect upon and smile. Some of us looked at the trees or identified the plant specimens. Others wrote notes, or took pictures, or carried out semi-formal interviews with whichever family member we felt most comfortable with. Others played with material toys, climbing ladders, smelling fruit or knocking on enormous oil containers to discover them empty. As we found the olive branches, force-fed powder food through irrigated pipes, or in the smaller farm providing shade for some resident chickens, this seminar group grew together, discovering the knowledge of the peasant farmer.  This experience was far richer and engaging than any power point presentation or report.

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[1] “Workshop on Agricultural Labour and Rural Landscapes in the Arab World” Organised by the Thimar collective and supported by the École Nationale d’Agriculture de Meknès, the Leverhulme Trust and the London School of Economics.

[2] Calculated based on 286 plants/hectare in a cultivated area of 230 hectares, this was the details of the holding advertised by the company.

 

 

Let them eat sherbet

Sherbert Fountain

Let’s be honest, some academic events are a real waste of time. I’ve been to so many recently that I may as well put on a name badge as I get dressed. Although, where cutting edge research meets cutting edge research, I have to believe that the alchemy of ‘new knowledge’ creation is possible. More often than not, what clinches success to me is how well events stimulate the latent knowledge in the room. A recent one that stands out for its provocation of the attendees was the aspirationally named, Eating Well.

My University, or more specifically the Brigstow Institute, wanted to bring together all the academics working on food, and push them a bit harder to work together. Quite right. So what did they do? Did they invite us to listen to 15 power-point presentations, organised in order of hierarchy? The keynote professor, then the cutting edge lecturers, a couple of post-docs, and finally the PhD students and perhaps the odd Masters student? No, they did not. They invited us to lunch.

The intention was clearly to provoke. With food, you don’t just bring your professional self to the table, you unavoidably bring your body, mind and palette. You bring your learned and culturally and socially developed preferences for salty and sweet, dry or greasy food. You bring your hang-ups or your calorie counting, your religious or cultural prohibitions, your awareness that you need more iron, less sugar, or perhaps a random allergy.  Many of us also brought our brains, questioning what had come from where and how it had travelled, who had picked it or what animal lived to die for it.

The organisers began as good cops. We found our place at the tables by looking for our favourite childhood sweet. I’d told them, in the confirmation e-mail, that mine was a sherbet fountain. It awaited me. So there we were, directly talking history, taste, health, production, family life and taste-buds. Both I and the sherbet fountain had changed since I had braces and it was 12p in the corner shop. The sherbet fountain had gained a plastic cover and ingredients in different languages. I had gained several allergies and two front teeth. Elsewhere on the tables were flying saucers, cola bottles, lemon drops, curly wurleys, and pretty much everything you can remember in corner shops 20 years ago.

 

Then they got serious. No, there would not be a choice of menu, and no, we would not be able to negotiate the ingredients. We were back at school: the food was served on school dinner trays. As academic guests we then had to look at our place mats and attempt to figure out the nutritional value of the meal. The grams of fat, sugar, protein and all other such components of the meal were listed on the tablecloth-workbook. They’d also gone to the effort of listing the place of origin for all the ingredients and we were challenged to work out food miles using the maps provided.

I say challenged because we did not succeed. Perhaps one of the learning points of this was to realise how incredibly complex these kinds of calculations are. While I am constantly making judgements based on lists of ingredients and where they come from, I’m not used to calorie counting or working out how many grams of each ingredient I  need to reach a Recommended Daily Allowance. Hence, eating well, is not as simple as it seems and was in itself a provocation of all those who think they know how to.

To begin with, I was up for the challenge. I worked out where my salad came from, calculated its nutritional content, estimating weight, looking at origin. But there was no second course for me because in the effort to simplify the exercise the directive had been not to provide alternatives. I hadn’t thought I needed an alternative, because there is usually some bread, potatoes, pasta or rice which has been uncontaminated by the dairy products and nuts I’m allergic to. Ironically, this ultra-aware event brought us back to ground. We’re in the South West, they didn’t say it like this, but essentially the message was, we are eating what’s here. So it was butter and cheese galore and there were no veg without cow-products.

This was extremely interesting, because at this point on our table we had an in-depth and personal exchange about the dairy industry. My neighbour had grown up on a dairy farm and revealed a trove of information about the manipulation of calving for milk production. If we’d been given the option of alternatives, many vegan options would have arrived at our table, but we were in school dinner mode. The lactose intolerant reluctantly tolerated a bit of butter and some vegans became vegetarian. The allergic people went to check out the chat on the other tables: class, global inequalities, childhood nutrition.

Returning to no more trays with forks, I was pleased to find the anorexic’s solution, instead of substance I could have sweets for lunch: my sherbet fountain was allergen free.

 

Flowerland

Tulips in window

Shall we have a happy story, or a miserable one? Happy, I hear you cry!!

OK, well my work is about people who work with nature, and how that is organised. The people involved are often those who have moved to work, or migrants. The nature I’m talking about usually becomes some form of food. But not in this case, because I am in Holland: land of flowers.

Although flowers are not food, they fall bang, smack in the middle of the narrower category of supply chain products that I’m getting nosy about: horticulture. That’s fruit, veg, medicinal plants and cut flowers, which like strawberries or tomatoes can be grown outside in the warm, or inside in the hothouse. The earliest seasonal work for horticultural workers in the UK for example, are in the daffodil fields of Cornwall. So although you can’t eat (most) flowers, the process of producing them is quite similar.

And so to our story. Here in Holland there are flowers everywhere. People buy flowers, give flowers, have flowers in their nicely furnished houses and in their quiet public spaces. Although I came to be on holiday, I’ve been doing a bit of work on the side. Like the opposite of going to a conference and taking an extra day to go to the beach, in my extra couple of days I had a few meetings. In one of these meetings I met Rashid.*

Rashid prepares flowers for export. He’s Moroccan, but also speaks English, French and Dutch as well as Arabic (classical and colloquial) and a version of Tamazight (Berber). So we were able to have a coffee and chat slowly, and in a mixture of those vocabularies (I’ll be honest, mostly in English). At some points the sugar sachet also had to be held upright and pretend to be a flower stalk as he explained to me how the flowers are potted, spread out, prepared, picked and plasticked for purchase.

So Rashid is one of the people who several decades ago, responded to a European short term need for ‘seasonal’ workers. He came on a three-month visa to pick grapes in France. That was in 1974. Since then the work has never dried up. Rashid came to Holland, which he said is ‘flowerland’. Thanks to an authorisation programme pretty soon after the move, Rashid was lucky, he said, and didn’t have to go through the sometimes decades-long process of applying for residency whilst existing on minimum, or lower than minimum wage.

This didn’t mean that he was living in luxury. For the first ten years of his time in Europe, Rashid lived in a room that the manager made him inside the ‘firm’. I’m not sure if that means a concrete room next to a greenhouse as I’ve seen elsewhere, or whether it means a room in a factory. What’s clear is that it isn’t something that would give you much space or any autonomy whatsoever from your boss, or your beckoning flower crop.

This is a happy story though, because the ten years ended and Rashid not only was able to return home and get married but also to settle in Holland with his family, and even stay with the company for longer than the boss. He kept his place as flower-packer, picker and organiser when the owners changed their make-up. He was also a member of the union in the company that had been going since he started.

Last year Rashid celebrated his 40th year with the firm, he showed me a photo in which he was presented with an enormous bunch of flowers, by the flower firm.  He has just two years before retirement which he seemed happy with. Will someone replace him when he goes? Possibly someone on a ‘seasonal contract’, which is limited to just two months here. That seems strange when the flowers are grown all year. Or maybe he won’t be replaced at all. The company now has a machine which plants the flowers directly into the trays, replacing 8 people with two.

So will there be more happy stories like Rachid’s? Told with smiles and reminiscence? Flowers are cheap at the moment in the Netherlands. Exports are low, the cash-strapped British with a weak pound are one reason for that, they want less flower heads and more greenery. And they often prefer the flowers from further away (perhaps Kenyan or Peruvian roses) rather than the colourful but well-known tulips.

Perhaps we should turn back to food then to see where the jobs are then, after all we can’t stop eating. But I won’t tell you about the worker I met from a slaughterhouse for chicken, because he works 15 hours a day, and you wanted a happy story.

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*The name was changed

Sugar

sugar granules

Sugar, sweetness, rush. Smile for the beet and the cane, but too much sugar and you get just a black beam, with the sugar-lump-like teeth gone from the grin. Ah, teeth. Just a smile can reveal so much about social status, about struggles and tastes. There is that typical top and bottom post-braces smile of those with the private dental plan and the private education. Then there is the embarrassed closed-lip smile of the four-year-old in my fieldwork site who has already lost all her front teeth to a diet of sugary tea, bread and donuts.

It’s time to write about sugar. Not just because I am bouncing off the walls with the stuff in its caffeinated accompaniments of tea and coffee. Not just because sugar in the UK provides such a clear comparison to one of the key cultural ingredients of life in Morocco. The main reason that I have come to be thinking so much about sugar in recent days is that I have been taught about it: by my students.

I’m not sure that there is sufficient recognition in academia, or in education in general, that teachers learn from students. You might already be an expert in climate change but surely if you get 60 essays considering the same data from different perspectives, and filling in the gaps, you’re going to come away all the more confident that you know what you know.

And so I now know about sugar. Over thirty student reports into the connection between Bristol and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade have left me in no doubt that the wealth of this city (Bristol) is at least in part founded on the trade in sugar, and slavery. Bristol, with its access to the Atlantic via the Bristol Channel, its shipbuilding trade, and its merchant class, not to mention its burgeoning financial sector, was a hub for commerce of all kinds that linked back to the slave trade.

Bristol managed to find its corner in this ‘triangular trade’. We can hold Bristol ships and merchants to account for selling an estimate of 500,000 Africans into slavery on the plantations of the Americas and the Caribbean. That was 1/5th of all British slaves. This put Bristol in a perfect position to develop a sickly trade and a sweet tooth. The sugar processing, the rum, the glass-blowing for the rum bottles. These and many other industries were helped along by these ventures and the money that sloshed up the Avon with them.

I would point out, that like any good academic, I am not simply relying on the things that I have learned from my students, but on my first hand research. That’s right, I have been eating a lot of sugar and visiting a lot of buildings which were built on the shillings of the sugar merchants. It’s not hard in Bristol. I don’t have to even leave my own institution in order to find an example of that trade on which it was at least partially founded. The University doesn’t explain the providence of its founders’ wealth in its own narrative history though, so we’ll have to be more specific.

The Cabot Institute and the Wills Memorial Building are both named after philanthropists who were slavers first. Wills dealt in tobacco rather than sugar, but it’s not such a big difference. Too much sugar and you are sick. Too much rum, the same. Too much tobacco and your teeth are stained rather than rotten. Bristol is sick of the sugar. There is a petition at the moment to change the name of at least one of those magnets that brings people to Bristol year around: Colston Hall. The national media are even interested in the debate (Guardian, Telegraph, BBC).

Perhaps it could be re-named. Why not? Hally McHallFace could work well. If that doesn’t go down well with Bristolians, I think I know a group of students who could come up with some very good counter proposals. One pointed out that the Hall wasn’t even built and named until well over a hundred years after Colston had died. So, so much for editing history, this seems to be more about revising the bad revisionism that led to the Hall having this name in the first place.

With sugar on the brain it’s quite difficult to write a thesis. Teaching though, is every bit as much a part of the PhD process as is thesising. Too much and you get very tired. A little and not a lot of teaching, like sugar, is a welcome luxury that takes the bitterness and the loneliness out of the 80,000 words: to be written.

Lettuce con courgette spaghetti

courgette-spagetti-tescoAs it is valentine’s day, I will start with something very un-politically correct in the post-grad-researcher world. We are naturally expected to complain, over-heat like any over-used computer and more than anything, suffer for our doctorate. Well I defy you culture of suffering, this is fun. On a day of love and emotion, I admit it: I love my PhD.

Yes, OK, I am in the post-fieldwork honey-moon period, pre-thesis and post research proposal; no, I haven’t yet entered the hell of synchronising data charts with pages of contents, and no, there are no chapters ready to go in the book. Let’s be honest, there are pretty much no chapters at all. That, however, my PhD and more normal friends, is not the point. The point is, that even though hard days in this relationship are still to come, I am still interested.

This last month or so, everyone else is interested too. There has been a #lettucecrisis and a #courgettecrisis and questions are being asked. “Why are Tesco rationing lettuce?” people are asking. “What can I do without courgettes for my veggie no-calorie lasagne?” And (big jump here), “Why are we even eating all this salad in the middle of winter?” And so the nation makes the mental jump from Tesco over to the greenhouses of Southern Europe, perhaps even beyond.

Now, since I don’t yet feel ready to move on to serious data analysis, I thought I’d go and do just a last little spot of fieldwork: a research trip down Park Street, in Bristol’s city centre. Sites visited were: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose. Clearly the limitation of the study is that Park Street is not representative of an average UK shopping street because it is big and really quite posh. Nevertheless, let’s see what we find.

A man in Tesco confirmed the national news, and what I have personally verified about summer vegetables really and truly depending on the situation in Southern Spain and not just on what we expect to see all day, every day, without exceptions. “Haven’t had lettuce for about six weeks” he said. Now lettuce is interesting to me, because it is counter-seasonal. That means that it is grown for us abroad at exactly the time when we can’t grow it here. So we can forget about seasons altogether and pretend that lettuce just is. Full stop. Thought stops there.

But no, during these last six weeks, the thoughts haven’t stopped there and in the UK people have been thinking about where their lettuce comes from and even briefly considering how the farmers of our food produced at the wrong time of year might be struggling to do that. But even more than that, there is discussion and help on how we might deal without lettuce in February. Personally I’d prefer porridge on the beach in August, but I’ve already admitted I like my PhD so we shouldn’t let my proven-radical opinions deter anyone from the crunch of an iceberg whilst shivering next to the radiator.

More interesting than lettuce however, to me and my counter-seasonal blinkered brain, are courgettes. Courgettes are vegetables that are not just counter-seasonal, but that are grown as part of the same supply chain as tomatoes. So in Spain from around the end of September until late June, and in Morocco from the beginning of November until the end of April, we get not just tomatoes but also courgettes, peppers, aubergines and more.

 

Tesco didn’t have any courgettes when I visited. Or did it? That depends on if we count the ‘courgette spaghetti’ that sat pre-prepared in a plastic box next to the loose veg. Sainsbury’s did have courgettes, for the quite considerably higher than normal price of £1.90 kilo, and also had the [ridiculous] spaghetti version too. Finally, Waitrose, rose above the spaghetti trend but also only offered the re-valued crop in semi-packaged form, this time in a nicely designed bag of three for the notable price of £2.59, or £5 a kilo.

The courgette spaghetti, or ‘courgetti’ is interesting – I can understand Tesco’s choice to prioritise its few courgettes for courgetti production because you get to sell it for a far higher price (£4 kilo) and perhaps just as importantly you can get away with absolutely no information about where the trapped and grated courgette comes from. So profit is accumulated in our humble convenience supermarkets on Park Street, and we don’t get any further forward in this radical process of thinking about where the courgette in the box is from, let alone who grew it.

Tomatoes will at some point get a blog of their own, but for the moment suffice to say that those I found on my little jaunt down Park Street were without a shadow of a doubt produced by firms and people that I encountered during my (proper) fieldwork in Morocco. The location confirms it, as do the codes on the packaging. We don’t know where the spaghetti courgette originates but I suspect it is from not so far away. On valentine’s day, I’m more than happy to think about this, and I’ll sacrifice the courgetti dinner for two.

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