CM . . . . Volume XX Number 23 . . . . February 14, 2014
Fruit hunters may be fruit growers, professional horticulturalists and botanists, or people who are just obsessed with fruit: its scent, its flavour, its voluptuousness (and many of the fruit featured in this film can only be described as "voluptuous"). Fruit hunters freely admit that their interest borders on a kind of craziness – admittedly, a harmless and actually, quite productive craziness, but an obsessiveness that is typical of any serious connoisseur. Fruit hunters have an emotional relationship with their quarry, but they are searching not just for the newest, freshest, most unusual taste sensation, but also for the opportunity to contribute to the propagation, and cultivation of fruit species and varieties unknown to the average consumer.
The first of the two "episodes" in The Fruit Hunters is entitled "The Evolution of Desire" and chronicles the evolution of humankind's relationship with fruit. It seems that humans evolved because of fruit; agriculture "placed fruit within our reach", and fruit came to have symbolic value in civilized societies, through its enjoyment in cuisine, its role in various rituals, or even, its depiction in art. We learn of individuals who developed fruit varieties still popular today (the Hass avocado, the Bing cherry, the clementine orange) and of botanists who have played key roles in making previously unknown fruits available for popular consumption. But, it is the fruit hunters of our era who are truly remarkable for their focus on fruit. Some of them travel the globe, shopping in far-off farmers' markets in the hope of finding a new cultivar, tracing it back to its original habitat, and then, taking cuttings of stock in hopes of bringing it back to their own nursery where they will graft the plant stock, propagate the plant, and grow it to maturity. Then, it can be available not only to fruit lovers like themselves, but also to everyday consumers interested in trying something new. Others are interested in the history of formerly common cultivars, and they search on ancient properties for very old trees bearing fruit seen in paintings of centuries ago. Still others are people who just love fruit, all kinds of fruit, and are seized with missionary zeal to spread that love to others. But one thing that all fruit hunters share is a belief that most consumers have lost an awareness of the diversity of the fruit world and are stuck on buying the same things, every week.
In the second episode, "Defenders of Diversity", we are given a somewhat different perspective on fruit hunting; although our supermarket produce departments are packed with fruit, the fruit we buy has been bred "to travel, to produce all year round, and be attractive in the market." For fruit to meet the criteria demanded by this type of mass market consumption, selective breeding has taken place, and over time, certain varieties have come to dominate the marketplace, the banana being a prime example. Over 100 billion bananas are consumed yearly, but the only variety farmed to meet this level of demand is the Cavendish. It is highly nutritious, travels well, and looks great on a fruit stand. It came to prominence in the 1920's when a fungus nearly destroyed the cultivation of bananas, and now Panama Disease threatens to wipe out the Cavendish. When there is lack of diversity, there is lack of genetic material which can provide resistance to such plagues. The hunt is on to develop a banana variety to replace the Cavendish that will have flavour, aroma, and disease resistance. If it is not found, bananas may be wiped out by disease.
Industrial farming doesn't just pose problems for food diversity; rainforests, which are treasure-troves of fruit, are often clear-cut and bulldozed for other agricultural or industrial purposes. In Borneo, rainforests are being turned into palm tree fruit plantations; the fruit of palm trees is used in a variety of products and is a lucrative crop. But, destroying the rainforest destroys the traditional way of life for the Penan tribe whose people eat huge amounts of fruit, as do the animals indigenous to the area. As the rainforest disappears, so do the staples of their diet and their home, and they are forced to relocate to villages.
North American consumers might think that they have access to fruit diversity; after all, there was a time when items such as a kiwi-fruit were considered wildly exotic and available, if at all, for brief periods in the year. Now, we experience "permanent global summertime" and can buy almost any fruit, any time of the year. Unfortunately, in order for all those fruits to be available year-round, genetic modifications have altered or de-selected many varieties, either because they are harder to grow, or don't travel long distances very well. Anyone who has bought fruit in season from a local farmers' market or fruit farm knows that there's a world of difference between store-bought produce and local product. Local produce may have imperfections and inconsistency of size, but the flavour is astounding.
However, there are plant breeders who are defenders of diversity. Rather than modifying fruit in laboratory settings, they use traditional but time-consumptive methods, such as grafting and "the work of bee", (hand pollination of flowers) to create new hybrids. Others scout for previously unknown fruits that may have market potential. For example, the Haskap, is a strange-looking oblong berry that has a flavour blending raspberry and blueberry It thrives in cold northern climates, and right now, growers in Saskatchewan are pioneering it. High in vitamin C and anti-oxidants, it's highly popular in Japan but virtually unknown anywhere else. Sometimes, the "surprise" is found in someone's backyard where a tree planted decades ago continues to bear fruit varieties which have disappeared from market shelves. Whatever the case, these fruit hunters recognize the value of fruit diversity and of trying something they won't find at the local grocery store.
The cinematography of The Fruit Hunters is outstanding, and David Suzuki is, as always, an excellent narrator. We see the physical and sensual wonder of colourful, juicy tropical fruit and by comparison, even the shiniest of apples look pretty boring. However, this film is likely to have rather limited classroom usage. Of the two episodes, "Defenders of Diversity" is more likely to be useful in a senior high school classroom context. In biology classes, the practical application of the concept of genetic selection is seen in the work of plant breeding, and world geography classes can see the problems raised by a dependence on industrial farming, as well as its impact on both consumers and farmers. I don't think that most high school students will take seriously the zeal of the fruit hunters who are profiled in "The Evolution of Desire" episode; yes, these folks have a mission, and no one will dispute that it's worthwhile, but the average teen will just watch this episode and say, "What's with them? It's just fruit."
Recommended with Reservations.
Joanne Peters, a retired high school teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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