All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

The demise of the Quebec cornichon.

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Rick, a good friend recently moved to Quebec, emailed me an article from La Presse bemoaning the demise of the Quebec pickle.  It’s worth a snort, if not a guffaw, in part because the word cornichon is used, in French, to mean somewhat dim-witted.  And I suppose he sent it to me because, well, it shows Quebec must be a distinct society if the fate of the humble cornichon deserves a full page article.

But the article is quite serious.  Last year, only 5000 tonnes of pickling cucumber were produced in Quebec, a mere 20% of the production in 2000.  The reason for this reflects the problems of food production anywhere:  cucumbers, like most produce, are expensive to grow and particularly expensive to harvest.  As a result, most pickle jars contain cucumbers that have been harvested in India, where labour costs are low (like the Crespo brand), or in the US, where industrial-scale agriculture saves some costs (like Bick’s pickles, owned by Smuckers).  Bick’s are particularly galling, since in Quebec they market their pickles under the brand Habitant – a name that means “traditional Quebec farmer” to most locals.  The last Canadian Bick’s plant, in Dunnville, Ontario, closed last November.

Of the pickles sold in Quebec, only the brands Whyte’s and Potter’s used Quebec grown cucumbers.  I don’t know what the situation is in BC, but I assume that none of the store brand pickles are home grown; BC has little field cucumber production, only the greenhouse production is significant.  And you don’t pickle long English cucumbers.

This is a bit annoying to those of us who like to promote local agriculture (and maybe Rick emailed the article just to get me annoyed).  Local agriculture, at least in BC, tends to be less chemical intensive, and it produces local jobs.  All good things, from the standpoint of healthier environment and social justice.  (OK, nitpickers, there are a lot of foreign farm workers picking BC’s field crops, meaning that the 100 mile diet comes from 3000 mile workers – that’s besides the point!)

Be that as it may.  What I find really galling is the predicament of these two pickling companies find themselves in.  Neither of them can advertise that their pickles are Quebec bred, never mind “product of Canada”.  Why?  Because the law says that a maximum of 2% of a “product of Canada” can be of foreign origin.  But for these pickles, the vinegar, the salt, and the sugar are imported.  And they’re more than two percent of the total.  Aha!

This is a case of a well-meaning regulation that ends up being completely self-defeating, and absolutely ridiculous.  We care about where the produce was grown – not where the salt was mined.

I know that there are a lot of more urgent problems in the world than the demise of the Quebec pickle.  But this little issue is symptomatic of a much bigger problem: food labeling.  If I purchase pickles, I have no way to know where the vegetables in the jar have been grown.  Neither could I know whether any of them have been genetically modified.  I’d just like to know, and I can’t.  And that’s true of pretty much any food that comes in a jar or a box.

Part of the problem, of course, is the industrial food-ag complex, where everything is considered a commodity.  According to this model, corn is just corn, a cucumber is just a cucumber, doesn’t matter  where it’s from.  How sad.  I’m sure there are remarkable terroir qualities to pickling cucumbers that labeling laws just disregard.  Somehow, Europeans have managed to get around that: it’s not any blue cheese, it’s a Roquefort.  It’s not a red wine, it’s a Nuits-Saint-Georges.  It’s not ham, it’s Westphalia.  But pickling cucumbers?

Ok, maybe it’s a stretch.  But I still prefer to get my pickles from the lady at the market.  At least, I can ask her where the damn things come from.

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Written by enviropaul

January 26, 2012 at 9:51 pm

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