The Irony of Organic Garlic From China

After working (and shopping) at market in local produce bliss yesterday, I arrived home, only to realize I was out of garlic, a pity since I had Virginia-grown bulbs within arm's reach just a few hours earlier. Oh well, I thought, I can pick up some when I'm at the Thai grocery, where I needed to pick up some soy sauce and gingerroot.

In the back of the store, I found garlic grouped in threes, packaged in white netting. The label said, "Made in China." Garlic from China? Something is wrong with this picture. I promptly returned it to the bin, thinking of a plan B. My neighborhood Whole Foods Market surely would have garlic that had not traveled across two or three continents to get here. The American garlic capital of Gilroy, Calif., was a long way from Arlington, Va., but it was a lot closer than China.

My helpful kitchen assistant offered to do the job, and in the meantime, I began preparing dinner. As I unload the bag, I notice the familiar white netting that I had just spurned in the Thai grocery. Lo and behold, the label stating "Organic Garlic," also indicates on its back side, that it's "Made in China." Say it isn't so!

I am immediately reminded of a passage from "The Ominivore's Dilemma," by Michael Pollan, in which he debates the merits of 'organic' asparagus that has been flown in from Argentina:

"My plan had been a cozy winter dinner, but I couldn't resist the bundles of fresh asparagus on sale at Whole foods, even though it set me back six dollars a pound. I had never tasted organic South American asparagus in January, and felt my foray into the organic empire demanded that I do. What better way to test the outer limits of the word 'organic' than by dining on a springtime delicacy that had been grown according to organic rules on a farm six thousand miles (and two seasons) away, picked, packed and chilled on Monday, flown by jet to Los Angeles Tuesday, trucked north to a Whole Foods regional distribution center, then put on sale in Berkeley by Thursday, to be steamed by me, Sunday night?"

So, for $1.29, I had three bulbs of organic garlic from the other side of the world that arrived in my kitchen - only to be moldy and partially unusable. I guess I'd be moldy too if I had to travel 8,000 miles in a veil of white netting.

We in the wealthy world have access to food from all over the world to satisfy our epicurean appetites - lamb from New Zealand, oranges from Israel, char from Iceland. But garlic from China? Can someone please enlighten me and tell me why it's a good idea to expend fossil fuel to transport little allium bulbs from the other side of the world? I still can't get past my disbelief.

Have a similar long-distance food transport story that still has you scratching your head? Share in the comments area below.

By Kim ODonnel |  July 10, 2006; 10:53 AM ET Food Politics
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I can't tell you why its a good idea, but I certainly doubt that anything other than a bribe allowed it to get to you from the most polluted country in the world wearing a label that says "Organic".

Posted by: Greg Lloyd | July 10, 2006 1:14 PM

The most outrageous one to me is one of the most obvious: Fiji water. It's water that's been shipped half-way around the planet. Yes, water.

Posted by: John | July 10, 2006 1:24 PM

It's not like they send a huge ship just for garlic. Things get shipped across the world all the time. What difference does it make if garlic is also on the ship? It doesn't take any more energy whether or not garlic is part of the load.

Posted by: Fred | July 10, 2006 1:45 PM

Buyer beware, the majority of produce in Whole Foods comes from far flung places regardless of whether it is conventional or organic. I rarely shop there for this reason. I understand that avocados, bananas and mango will not grow well in the midatlantic but why isn't WFs selling local garlic, onions, zucchini, tomatoes, potatoes, mushrooms etc.? Their spokesperson can pay lipservice to supplying local goods but the produce aisle tells a different story. I was looking at tomatoes at WF last week and they were not only hothouse but imported from Isreal. There are excellent PA, VA and MD hothouses putting out nicer product available at farmer's markets already this season but alas I too messed up and forgot to pick them up. I guess if the garlic is coming from China then Isreal for tomatoes is not that far.

Posted by: mm | July 10, 2006 2:18 PM

Read those labels on frozen food, too. I've been dismayed to find "organic" spinach grown in China. On balance, I pass it up in favor of so-called "conventional" frozen spinach grown at least in the continental USA, though at a considerable distance from my midwestern home.

Food buying is a frustrating maze of competing values. For most of the year, there simply is no local produce. I often preserve some of my own garden's yield, though certainly not enough to carry my family through the winter - and not incidentally, at considerably higher energy cost per serving than mass-preserved vegetables. Early on I learned that simply not eating green vegetables in winter is not a viable choice, either. So we muddle through.

Posted by: Susan | July 10, 2006 2:32 PM

Please check my facts, but I was once told by a farmer in Gilroy that as a result of a garlic 'blight' a few years back they had lost much of the market to China. Nowadays, Gilroy is probably only the garlic processing capital of the world, as they often import Chinese garlic for use in products that originate from Gilroy. Maybe you can check this story out and tell us how true it is. Thanks.

Posted by: Mike | July 10, 2006 2:50 PM

What's wrong with casual affluence? Surely some moldy Chinese garlic is no worse than a Japanese hybrid vehicle. If the goods are really organic (as defined by God knows who), then buy them and eat them knowing that you have paid a premium for your comfort. By the way, if something's expensive, then it may have required greater resources to produce than its less expensive substitute.

Good things about organic food are that it often tastes very good, and the stores that specialize in it are so expensive that fewer people shop there, making the experience less cumbersome.

Posted by: Tom Canick | July 10, 2006 3:12 PM

Buying garlic in our Central Kentucky area is an ongoing frustration. We also have the ubiquitous Chinese white netted garlic. Whatever happened to Gilroy "the garlic capital of the world"?

Posted by: Laura | July 10, 2006 3:19 PM

We live in a global economy. Actually, we've been here for quite some time, but I find it strikes home with food because I think much more deeply about what I eat than, for example, a 99 cent spray bottle that was manufactured in Indonesia. Giant (and Safeway and Trader Joe's, et al.) sells "wood oven-fired pizzas handmade in Italy." For $3.99. So check me on this, it's actually cheaper to assemble a little dough, tomato sauce, and cheese, package it and freight it halfway across the world?

You better believe it. Otherwise they wouldn't do it. Salud.

Posted by: Richard | July 10, 2006 3:21 PM

U of Fla report on U.S. garlic imports,

Posted by: Jay | July 10, 2006 3:22 PM

Importing garlic from China is no worse than importing shrimp from Vietnam. U.S. waters are full of shrimp which can be bought fresh, vice the farmed stuff from Vietnam which comes in frozen and is not nearly as tasty as the domestic kind. Here in South Carolina, we say "Friends don't let friends eat imported shrimp."

Bruce S.

Posted by: Bruce Slomovitz | July 10, 2006 3:23 PM

I was very surprised to learn from the farmer I get my produce from through my CSA (community-supported agriculture) subscription that most of the garlic you see in the grocery stores now was grown in China. All of the economic or eco issues aside, I've got to say that the local garlic I get from my CSA is incredibly tasty and very unlike what I've gotten in the grocery store. Just because foods travel well doesn't mean that they are as flavorful as what we can get more locally.

Posted by: Andrea | July 10, 2006 3:56 PM

In a recent Harpers index, they note that the ratio of lettuce imported from Mexico to lettuce exported to Mexico is 1:1. Where's the sense in that?

Also, food pickers in other countries do not live under the same labor standards that we do in the states. Your Peruvian asperagus may have been picked by someone who owes his soul to the company store.

Posted by: Rita | July 10, 2006 4:01 PM

It wasn't Kim's asparagus, I believe that was a quote.

Posted by: Pru | July 10, 2006 4:11 PM

According to Census Bureau data, the U.S. imported over 50 million KG of garlic from China last year at just over $1/KG. More than 2/3 of our garlic imports were from China.

Posted by: Joe | July 10, 2006 4:17 PM

Thank you for all of your terrific, thought-provoking commments thus far. I am going to press more on this issue and follow up over the course of next few days.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | July 10, 2006 4:19 PM

I too have been frustrated and puzzled by the dominance of Chinese garlic for quite some time. My only solution thus far is to have my mom ship out boxes of the real stuff from CA. Until a permanent solution is found (and perhaps I'll have to work on one) it's nice to know that misery has good company.

Posted by: Julie | July 10, 2006 4:39 PM

111 million pounds of garlic from China last year, worth 59 million dollars!, at I-24.


Posted by: Anonymous | July 10, 2006 5:12 PM

In addition to the extremely low wages of Chinese farmworkers ($1-2/day), many Chinese merchants smuggle garlic into the U.S. to avoid paying the import tax!

For more on the garlic story, and that of other U.S. crops that have been hurt by imports, check out "Crops in Crisis" at:

Posted by: Lisa Reinhalter | July 10, 2006 5:23 PM

And I thought my experience was unique! Mark Bittman wrote about the convenience of peeled garlic in his NYT column not too long ago. So, I picked up a plastic bag of peeled garlic at BJ's because I'm getting tired of tossing sprouted garlic bulbs. Imagine my surprise, the peeled garlic, in 3-4 cloves individual (vacuum?) packs were from China. They were very convenient and lasted for weeks. I suppose they have to, coming from that far away.

Posted by: leah | July 10, 2006 6:14 PM

Several comments:
1) Mr. Mackey the ultra right mogul of
"Whole Foods" makes billions pushing
expensive "quality" produce , except that
now he sells inferior quality garlic from
China emblazened with a sticker that says
"USDA inspected" ( as if to divert
attention from the fact that it is
2) Apparently Gilroy garlic man,
Mr. Christopher suffered not only
globalization but also from some
local plant disease that reduced the
Gilroy production of garlic.
Bottom line: eschew Mackey's CatoKartoffeln
and always demand domestic garlic!

Posted by: Tony | July 10, 2006 7:01 PM

Locally (WV) grown organic garlic, both hardneck and softneck varieties, are currently available at the FreshFarm farmers market on H St. N.E., Saturdays, 9-noon.

Posted by: David | July 10, 2006 7:26 PM

This is the result of the globalization that we are able to savor foods from all over the world. I do not see anything wrong if Whole foods is able to bring to us exotic foods from all over the world. For example , I had gooesberies from South America. Absolutely fabulous! Way to go, Whole Foods.

For the people who do not understand , please read Tom Friedman's ' The World is really Flat'

Posted by: Washington DC | July 10, 2006 7:29 PM

"Thai grocery, where I needed to pick up some soy sauce and gingerroot"

It's Ok to ship soy sauce from Thailand but not garlic from China? Sounds like the pot is calling the kettle black.

Posted by: Steve | July 10, 2006 7:33 PM

Getting out of season foods from other countries is probably ok. We always want something now that we would have to wait for until it is in season. But, we have the best growing lands in the world and we should take care of them, not turn them into house lots and grow our own garlic.

Posted by: Lynn Cairo | July 10, 2006 7:40 PM

Intercontinental trade seems to have existed since the days of Christopher Colombus; & probably beyond. A neat wiki piece is at

Today within the oil age, organic garlic from China is just another example of such trade; and one that's overtaken sales of local goods.

It's just plain cheaper to import them, as Richard mentions above. Even when taking into account the cost of freight & taxes.

Chinese industry isn't at fault I don't think. They didn't make the buying decisions.

I also read on the paper (the post also I believe) that most of the organic soy milk on sale at Safeway & Giant stores come from China too. How much this has affected US soy growers I have no idea.

I don't know whether to say that organic garlic or soy milk from China is a problem or a good thing. It's not as if Whole Foods is owned by Chinese merchants. I'm sure their board members are Americans who want to increase shareholder value.

And I'm sure China isn't all that happy; we've introduced them to greasy McDonalds junk food and teeth-rotting Coca-cola.

Posted by: Great Gatsby | July 10, 2006 8:57 PM

Everyone has probably moved on from this thread, but this is a big irritation of mine, so I'll put in my two cents anyway. I live in an agricultural region of Illinois. Corn central. Our local supermarket routinely stocks Colorado corn all summer long. The farmers' market sells fantastic local sweet corn by the truckload for less than a third of the supermarket's price, as does the local independent grocer, so I know that lack of availability, quality, and cost are not the barriers to selling local produce. I think there must be some kind of bundling of products going on because this is ridiculous. Incidentally, the supermarket has started carrying local peaches by popular demand.

Posted by: kancha | July 11, 2006 2:22 PM

Kancha, I hope this thread keeps growing! I have learned so much in the past 24 hours and begun to dig deeper into this issue. My big irritation with the garlic issue is similar to yours: Why, when local product is in season and in abundance, particularly at a Whole Foods, which touts itself as a steward of sustainabilty, is there garlic from China instead of garlic from neighboring counties and states? Why can't WF find a way to develop relationships with local farms so that local goods are being sold while at their peak? This is the part I cannot wrap my arms around. The globalization of the market is a whole different discussion, which other readers have touched on. But really, WF needs to be doing a lot more practicing of their principles.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | July 11, 2006 2:33 PM

"I'm sure their board members are Americans who want to increase shareholder value."
How can you be sure? Whole Foods has almost 200 stores throughout the US *and* the UK. Can we say for sure whether their baord members are all Americans? Whether this bothers you or not can be your own personal decision, as is the decision to buy local or not.
Does the issue of transporting organic foods long distances bother only those people who are eating organic for environmental reasons? If that's the issue for you, think about how many natural resources went into getting that food in your hands. For those that are eating organic foods for personal health reasons, well, I think we've seen how much people are willing to pay for their own personal health (and not necessarily taking into account the health of others around them or the environment).

Posted by: SB | July 11, 2006 3:37 PM

SB's comment is responding to post from "Great Gatsby, " fyi. Keep the dialogue going, people!

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | July 11, 2006 3:53 PM

I guess I should be more concerned where my food comes from.

The best I can probably do is to buy only local produce. I do wonder how Safeway can occasionally offer cantaloupes from Costa Rica or Guatemala I think for $1 each.

As far as organic garlic is concerned, I'll give my local co-op a visit and check those cloves out. I do hope they're local.

I realize now that this is an important issue. It touches on why a company like Whole Foods would bring in organic garlic (that's probably of low quality) from China instead of finding a local supplier. My hunch tells me it's for profit. Somehow it was more profitable to import it. It certainly wasn't a result of voracious consumer demand for overseas garlic.

Hypothetically, Whole Foods can charge us $4/lb at the counter for imported "organic" garlic while they only paid $0.15/lb for it ($0.15/lb is a guess on my part, but I wouldn't be surprised). If this is true, Whole Foods' shareholders are getting richer and we certainly aren't getting our money's worth.

Can anyone comment on how much organic garlic costs if purchased at a Farmer's Market? That can give us some gauge I think. It's not wholesale price but at least the overhead is probably much less.

This has really opened my eyes. Before, I used to think if food was labeled "USDA Organic," then it must be good; and I happily pay the higher cost. Well, it's not gonna be that way any longer.

Also, I take back what I said about McDonalds food & Coca-cola. I realize we strongly identify with these brands. I've stopped consuming their products for the most part (and for some strange reason I've become healthier), but still- I mean no offense.

And thank you Kim for the great blog!

Posted by: Great Gatsby | July 11, 2006 10:29 PM

In China people consume U.S. oranges & grapes because they are a good value. It happens to also support the U.S. farmer. Chinese garlic is also a good value! Every dollar you spend on Chinese garlic helps more farmers live a decent life with some dignity by making an honest living.

We are all interdependent and need to understand this and to jump to conclusion for lack of sufficient knowledge or information - once in a while we need to see the forest beyond the trees. Perhaps the intermediaries of trade need to reform but let's not penalize the world's poor for our own shortcomings.

Posted by: Freddie | September 17, 2006 9:53 PM

Let's set things straight:
1. China produces over 67% of the world garlic supply. USA produces less than 3%.
2. The 5 member California Fresh Garlic Marketers Association (CFGMA) are the largest importers of China garlic.
3. The CFGMA suppliers nearly all the retail chains in America with garlic. If 60% or more of these chains carry China garlic on their shelves, it is not because of some supposed "garlic smuggler".
4. The CFGMA accepts Byrd Amendment money from the US government. This money has been ruled illegal by the World Trade Organization. The WTO has authorized our favorite trading partners (Great Britain, Mexico, Japan, China, EU, etc.) to put "retaliatory" duties on USA exports to those countries. Though the CFGMA could chose to not accept these funds (in excess of hundreds of thousands of dollars each year), the CFGMA readily accepts them despite hurting the competitive trading power of all USA producers who export.
5. White rot is a result of CFGMA farming techniques laden with chemicals and machinery resulting in tens of thousands of acres where garlic can never be grown.
6. The CFGMA hires lawyers which support misinformation posting on the web regarding China garlic AND the CFGMA hires lawyers which provide misinformation to the government in support of continuing the stream of illegal Byrd Amendment funds.
7. CFGMA members have publicly announced that a) they plant 40% fewer acres of garlic and, b) their profits are up 10% per year over the last many years.
8. Organic Farming, in part, supports the sustainable farming theory -- one world, one planet, let's take care of our planet. Whether in our own backyard or on the other side of the planet, proper stewardship of our planet through sustainable farming should be applauded.
9. Does it make sense to bring garlic from the other side of the planet? Well, let's do away with the CFGMA, the protectionist US Government agencies and see. In our consumer market, one dollar equals one vote. Over the past many years consumers have been voting that they want at least some garlic from California, Mexico, Argentina and China.

Posted by: HarvestFood | September 19, 2006 4:21 PM

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