For thousands of years spices from the Indian subcontinent were in great demand throughout Europe and the Middle East. For one, spices masked the flavor of food that had spoiled due to the lack of refrigeration. It was also a symbol of wealth and prestige amongst the aristocracy, who were often buried with peppercorns and other aromatics. Finally, the West historically romanticized goods that came from the “far-off” and “exotic” “Orient.”
This demand was so high that, while today we can say that crude oil is one of the main drivers of today’s global economy, spice was the main driver of the classical, medieval, and renaissance economies. They were in some fashion connected to the rise of the wealthy European merchant class, the emergence of the powerful Italian city-states out of the ashes of the Dark Ages, and the triumph of some of the most influential empires in history.
The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 put a strangle on the European spice trade due to the tariffs imposed by the Sultan upon spices that traveled through the Middle East to Europe. This led Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama, and Magellan to find an alternative route to Asia to continue to satisfy the European demand for spice, sparking the Age of Discovery. Well, it worked. The spice trade was reestablished and Spanish, Portuguese, and eventually British power was cemented. It is no overstatement to say that there would be no United States were it not for those little jars of peppercorns and turmeric inside our spice cabinets.
Fast forward a hundred or so years: the British East India company lands on the Indian subcontinent in 1608. Gradually it takes over and colonizes the entire subcontinent with the backing of the Crown. I won’t get into how this impacted every segment of the subcontinent’s society, but one of these segments was spices. The British classified, categorized, and organized spices into some mold in order to exploit them for profit. For instance, they arbitrarily favored the brightest yellow turmeric and the largest peppercorn varieties although these characteristics have no correlation with flavor or nutrient content. Also, the earliest branding marketing campaigns of the Company created Malabar pepper and Allepey turmeric, names that you’ll commonly see in any grocery store. These are not botanical varieties. Rather, they are carefully created brands that used the colonial names of “exotic” places to entice the British consumer into purchasing a taste of the Empire. With the standardization of spices came quality assessment via color and appearance, not via flavor and smell, and certainly not by how it was grown. The result was the loss of countless heirloom varieties that had been cultivated for a couple thousand years.
As I mentioned above, the history of the spice trade enriched many people: from the individual merchant to entire empires: basically everyone involved except the farmer. This system remains largely unchanged to this day. The traditional supply chain from farmer to consumer involves the auction house, multiple traders, exporters, importers, wholesalers, and retailers. The price of the spice is marked up by each intermediary, and the farmer is left with little. The standard commodity market price in India for a kilogram of turmeric is around 35 cents. By the time it reaches the West, it’s around $35. That’s a big difference. The farmer gets 100x less than the final retail price. No matter if we are on the colonial or post-colonial side of history, the farmers seem to get the short end of the stick.
Luckily, there are some companies that are doing good work. Diaspora Company and Burlap & Barrel are devoted to “decolonizing the spice trade.” They cut out several intermediaries by establishing working relationships with many farmers, which allows them to pay the farmers up to 10x the commodity price, overcoming the negative impacts of a globalized/colonialized economy. Also, they encourage the reintroduction of rare heirloom varieties into the western market, varieties that have been lost due to the legacy of colonization. Finally, their connection to the farmers allows them to support only the best agricultural practices.
One of the main reasons why I promote supporting locally produced food is because the further one gets away from the source of one’s food, the more likely it becomes to overlook inequitable systems. Yet at the same time, the closer we look into these systems, the more likely we are to find inspiring business leaders who have dedicated their lives to change them. There is a lot behind the seemingly inconsequential jars of pepper and turmeric in our spice cabinets, and I thank these two companies for bringing much attention to easily overlooked items that we all use on a daily basis.
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