The March of Empire: Mangos, Avocados, and the Politics of Transfer | Robert R. Alvarez

from Gastronomica 7:3

According to the truism, we are what we eat. These days, most of us delight in eating plenty of guacamole and mango chutney. But where did those avocados and mangos originate? When did they shift from being exotic intruders to part of our daily diets? What were the politics of their transfer? Most of us haven’t a clue.

In fact, deliberate plant transfer into the United States dates back to the late nineteenth century, to the period when Darwinism spurred scientific interest in new typologies and in the recording of new species. This seemingly innocent and objective process evolved into a dynamic global strategy of plant exploration and collection that transformed landscapes and yielded new hybrid vegetable and fruit varieties. In the United States, plant transfer had a clear economic base: the us Department of Agriculture (USDA) wanted to provide American farmers with seeds and plants for the creation of new markets. As a result of USDA policy, farming and the national landscape changed dramatically, if gradually. New hybrids that were developed in this country became staples in regional and national markets and ultimately engendered a transformation in global agriculture.

The pioneers who sought out nonindigenous plants were by and large men of creative vision and imagination. The collection of plants and their transfer initially belonged to a burgeoning botanical science in which new plants were added to growing and impressive typologies. But economic reasoning, no less than scientific curiosity, shaped the plant hunters’ activity. The significant funding involved in organizing their travels and disseminating their work required administration by government agencies that imposed a variety of regulations and controls. Today’s network of food regulations reflects a hierarchy tied not only to health and safety but also to economics and control.

In the late nineteenth century, the USDA sent agents throughout the world to find new fruit and vegetable varieties suitable for hybrid adaptation and eventual export in the world market. These agents, largely unknown to most of us today, formed a cadre of remarkable explorers who pushed at the frontiers of botanical science and changed forever what we buy at our markets, plant in our gardens, and cook for our meals.

The Plant Hunters

David Fairchild (1869–1954). David Fairchild, a botanist and bureaucrat, grew up in Kansas in the 1870s as a member of America’s intellectual elite. He studied at the Kansas State College of Agriculture, where his father was president, and then at Iowa State and at Rutgers, where his uncle, a distinguished biologist, taught. He eventually married one of Alexander Graham Bell’s daughters. Fairchild came to Washington in the early 1890s, where he joined the Department of Agriculture and made several explorative forays abroad. Indeed, while working for the USDA, Fairchild himself introduced more than twenty thousand exotic plants into the United States, among them mangos, alfalfa, nectarines, dates, horseradish, bamboos, and after a trip to Japan, the first flowering cherries of Washington, D.C. In 1889 he convinced the us Congress to allocate twenty thousand dollars to create the Office of Foreign Seed and Plant Introduction (OFSPI) and subsequently became its first director. Fairchild’s intention, like that of the USDA in general, was to support an applied botanical science to provide American farmers with what they called “economic plants” for market development. To achieve that goal, he sent USDA agricultural explorers, known as “plant hunters,” to collect thousands upon thousands of seeds and plants suitable for America’s farms, home gardens, and city landscapes.

The term “economic plants” suggests the motivation behind the newly created office. Rather than search for new botanical specimens solely for the sake of science, the agricultural explorers went to the exotic, non-Western regions of the world to seek and capture specific plants and seeds that could prove to be commercially viable. They worked on the margins of what they believed to be the “civilized world,” using China, Mexico, South America, India, Northern Europe, and Africa as their hunting fields.

Joseph F. Rock on horseback in Tibetan dress. Photographer unknown. President and fellows of Harvard College, archives of the arnold arboretum.

Through his expeditionary travels, Fairchild met and recruited other botanists and collectors, many of them distinguished as much by their eccentricities as by their passion for exotic plant exploration and their eagerness to penetrate the far corners of the earth. One such collector, Frank Meyer, exemplified the explorers’ wanderlust. As he wrote in a 1907 letter to Fairchild: “Our short life will never be long enough to find out all about this mighty Frans Nicholas Meijer, Meyer worked as the head gardener at the Amsterdam Botanical Gardens. Even as a young man, he preferred solitary wandering, and his passion for botany took him by foot across Europe through Belgium, Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain. Ever restless, he went to England to work in a commercial nursery but ended up sailing to New York in 1901, where his mentor, the eminent director of the Amsterdam Gardens, helped him secure work in the USDA’s Washington greenhouses. Between 1901 and 1905, Meyer visited Mexico, California, and Cuba, paying his way by working in nurseries.

David Fairchild had heard countless stories about Meyer and his adventurous travels. Meyer was working at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis when Fairchild broug ht him into the OFSPI and asked him to travel to East Asia in search of plants that might have economic value. Between 1905 and 1918, Meyer went on four long expeditions. His first, to Shanghai and Manchuria, lasted from 1905 to 1908. From the Far East, he shipped back specimens of persimmon, lotus, juniper, horse chestnut, and ginkgo biloba, in addition to thousands of seeds from Chinese vegetable crops. He also explored China’s borders with Russian Turkistan, Korea, and Kansu. In all, Meyer collected tens of thousands of specimens representing 2,500 plant introductions, including soybeans, several new types of grain, fruit, vegetables, bamboos, Chinese cabbage, elms, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, and water chestnuts. He also brought a number of notable ornamental plants to the West. His best-known introduction is the Meyer lemon, now prized for its aromatic and nonacidic fruit. Meyer disappeared in 1918 during a time of political turmoil, on what proved to be his last journey down the Yangtze River. His body was never recovered.1

Wilson Popenoe (1892–1975). As an agent of David Fairchild, Wilson Popenoe was responsible for introducing a number of tropical specimens to the world market, and avocados to the United States in particular. The son of a Huguenot immigrant to Massachusetts, he developed an interest in horticulture in Costa Rica, where his family moved when he was nine. There he first encountered the avocado pear (aka the avocado); there, too, his passions for gardening, horticulture, and Latin America grew. In his autobiographical notes, he recalled his initial enthrallment with plant hunting:

It was just about this same time [1902] that I began to read of the great plant hunters … All this inspired me, and I began to feel that plant hunting was just about the most romantic occupation imaginable. Not only did a chap get to travel in out-of-the-way corners of the world, but he stood a good chance of bringing home some new fruit, or food plant, which would add materially to his country’s wealth and happiness. After all, the march of empire had gone hand in hand with the transplantation of crop plants from one part of the world to another….2

In 1913 David Fairchild offered Popenoe a job with the USDA as an agricultural explorer in Central and South America. In Brazil Popenoe became fascinated with mangos. He also studied and collected other plants, among them seeds from the joboticaba tree. During World War I, Popenoe was sent to Guatemala to search for new varieties of avocado. He spent sixteen months traveling over sixteen thousand miles on horseback, searching for avocados, visiting coffee fincas, and taking copious notes and photographs. Escorted and guided by a Kekchi Mayan, Popenoe scoured Indian hamlets to find plants and seeds. By the late autumn of 1917, he had selected twenty-three avocado varieties to bring back to the United States.

Like many of the plant hunters, Wilson Popenoe wrote prolifically. In 1920 he published The Manuel of Tropical and Subtropical Fruits, a volume that became the definitive study of an enormous variety of tropical fruits, among them avocados, mangos, loquat, guava, litchi, papaya, dates, and cherimoya.

Joseph Rock (1884–1962). Fairchild also hired Joseph Rock, who had emigrated from Austria to the United States in 1905. After being diagnosed with tuberculosis, Rock moved to Hawaii and lived there for more than a dozen years before joining the USDA. In 1920 Fairchild sent Rock to China in search of the seeds that produced chaulmoogra oil, used to treat leprosy. Known as an eccentric, Rock traveled through China in as much luxury as possible. In addition to training his own Chinese cook in the preparation of Western delicacies, he carried an Abercrombie and Fitch portable bathtub on his expeditions and often had porters carry him to emphasize his status. A self-taught botanist and accomplished ethnographer, he eventually explored for the National Geographic Society and taught at Harvard. Rock published five books on Hawaiian flora as well as several books and articles on China’s Naxi language and culture. His journeys resulted in the introduction of conifers, potentilla, primula, and 493 species of rhododendrons to the United States. He also collected trees for reforestation in North America’s severe northern climates. In 1924, on a single expedition, he collected twenty thousand herbarium species that were distributed to botanical and horticultural institutions throughout North America and Europe.

Plant explorations continued throughout the first decades of the twentieth century, even into the Depression. One of the most productive, the Palemon Howard Dorsett Expedition of 1929–1931, was initiated by the USDA in response to the growing importance of the soybean as a food crop. The team of senior plant explorer Palemon Howard Dorsett, who had begun working for the USDA in 1909, and William Joseph Morse, his junior associate, sent approximately nine thousand plant accessions from the Far East to Washington D.C., of which some 4,500 were soybean specimens, including microbe-resistant strains. Other products of the expedition included pressed herbarium species, insect specimens, native publications, soybean food products, bamboo items, motion picture film, and over three thousand photographs from Japan, Korea, and Manchurian China.3

The Politics

The work of David Fairchild, Frank Meyer, Wilson Popenoe, Joseph Rock, and Dorsett and Morse is instructive. These agricultural explorers scoured the globe under the auspices of the USDA, searching for new plants and seeds for American farmers. Such books by David Fairchild as The World Was My Garden (1938) and The World Grows Round my Door (1947) encapsulate an ideology that defined the world as theirs for the taking, justified by the needs of the American farmer and of us agricultural development. Literally thousands of “economic plants” were introduced to American farmers during the heyday of the OFSPI.

Frank N. Meyer returning tired but satisfied from a successful raid in the high mountains. Wu Tai Shan, Shansi, China, February 25, 1908. Frank N. Neyer Collection, National Agricultural Library

However, in a darkly ironic twist, many of the fruits and seeds the plant hunters introduced to the United States for market development later became sanctioned from their countries of origin and were barred entry back into the States. Until recently, for example, Mexican and Central American avocados were excluded as us import varieties, despite the fact that they had originally been hunted in and brought to the United States from these “foreign areas.” Now, as imports back into American territory, they are subject to the scrutiny of USDA and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation. Plants that were once freely admitted into our territory have come under a new postcolonial gaze.

Much of this scrutiny occurs not in the United States or at our borders, but on foreign soil. Safety measures that aim to protect the American farmer and public from agricultural pests and infectious diseases also act as a control over the global market. Fruits and vegetables that once freely crossed frontiers and national borders have become subject to strict surveillance. Although the safety and regulatory measures of the USDA do protect farmers and the public from undesirable microbes, offshore exporters often consider the activities of us inspectors and institutions on foreign soil exaggerated. More seriously, these measures appear as a challenge to national sovereignty.

The history of mangos in the United States illustrates this convoluted process. Originally from India, mangos were transferred and introduced to Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, Africa, and eventually other tropical colonial regions of the world by European explorers. In the United States, mangos are grown primarily in Florida and California, but domestic production accounts for only about 1 percent of all mangos marketed in this country; the rest are imported. Curiously, until 2002, when the Mexican Ataulfo mango (a Manila variety) was certified for export to the United States, all mangos imported into the United States were hybrid seed varieties that had originally been developed by USDA scientists in Coconut Grove, Florida: Hayden mangos in 1910, Tommy Atkins mangos in the 1920s, and Kents in 1944. In 1945 the Keitts variety was developed in Homestead, Florida. Among the hundreds of mango varieties grown throughout the world, these four were the only ones that the USDA allowed in as imports, even though many of the other varieties are much more flavorful. In other words, American plant hunters collected mangos in foreign territory and brought them back to the United States, where they developed them into hybrids that they reintroduced to the tropical world. Now the USDA regulates the reentry of foreign mangos by means of strict certification measures. This is, without a doubt, maximized control.

P.H. Dorsett and his chinese interpreter, Peter Liu, on the trail near Pa Ta Chu, Western Hills, to the west of Peiping, China. Dorsett-Morse Oriental agricultural exploration expedition collection, National Agricultural Library

Mangos imported from Mexico and South America must conform to highly technical engineering protocols. All US-bound mangos must be submerged for 75 minutes in a hot water bath of 115 degrees Fahrenheit. USDA scientists created this process, called the hot water treatment (HWT), in 1987, when the Environmental Protection Agency outlawed the chemical pesticide dietheline bromide. Today the USDA keeps a watchful eye on more than sixty mango export packing sheds in Mexico. The HWT requires complex computer technology, sophisticated engineering, and major capital investment. Regulation is no small undertaking considering that almost five hundred thousand boxes of Mexican mangos entered the United States in 2006. American government representatives live in-country and oversee the certification process, with Mexican nationals deputized as USDA inspectors. Additionally, both the USDA and FDA inspect and certify production fields and fruit-packing houses. Although the USDA-imposed controls were initially put into place as safety measures to protect American farmers and consumers, they have now reached far and deep into Mexico and other exporting nations. The bottom line is that mango producers and distributors who expect to export their product to the United States must conform to the HWT and other complicated forms of security certification.

Postcolonial Appropriation and Control

Over the last few decades, food safety has become a matter of increasing concern to American consumers, a concern heightened by the current governmental obsession with securing our borders. Recent outbreaks of E. coli and the fear of terrorist contamination of the food supply have alerted us to the increasing numbers, types, and quality of our imported produce. The public expects to be protected from these threats by regulatory processes, which include the careful surveillance of foods crossing our borders from around the world. Food certification has become a standard process in the global marketing of foods.

Most of us believe that such regulation, imposed by the institutions of the state (the USDA and the FDA), is a new phenomenon. Clearly, however, this regulation was spurred not solely by the current need for food security or by the exponential increase in imports of foreign-grown produce. Food sanctions, in part, grew out of government involvement in seed exploration and development. The plant hunters regarded the people and regions they explored from a hierarchical and often racialized point of view, and their writings reveal a distanced engagement with the territories from which they extracted flora. This was an exotic, impure, chaotic, and uncivilized world, in contrast to America, which they placed at the global apex. These plant hunters sought nothing less than the transformation of the great American landscape through the introduction of new and economically important plants. How their activity has been absorbed into American ideology is a subject that remains to be addressed.

The questions I raise here revolve not solely around the inequality and competitive global forces operating in contemporary export agriculture. The broader implications and importance of plant transfer in world history are grounded in the fascinating, colorful, and often admirable exploits of individual USDA plant hunters. But the collective imperative of their actions and ideas reflects a period of colonial transformation and a geopolitical vision of a new world hierarchy. This was the beginning of the major metamorphosis of global agriculture. The history of plant hunting a century ago relates to the broader global changes of the period, to be sure, but it also laid the foundation for the current system of postcolonial appropriation and control, to which food security and certification belong.



2. Frederic Rosengarten, Jr., Wilson Popenoe: Agricultural Explorer, Educator and Friend of Latin America (Lanai: National Tropical Botanical Garden, 1991), 9.

3. Like other agricultural exploration collections, the Palemon Howard Dorsett Photograph Album Collection is archived at the National Agricultural Library.