Ketchup Diplomacy in Red China
China, it turns out, now grows more tomatoes for processing—the kind that get turned into ketchup, pasta sauce, salsa—than any place in the world besides California, and maybe Italy. The precipitous rise of the country's tomato industry, which scarcely existed a decade ago, is wreaking some havoc. The Senegalese claim that cheap Chinese tomato paste is driving farmers off the land. Turks, Aussies, and Russians have similar complaints. The Italians are especially unhappy: The Silk Road over which Marco Polo brought home the pasta has turned into a pipeline of cheap tomato paste.
The story of how China's tomato industry grew surely must rank as one of the weirdest of the country's economic boom. To begin with, the Chinese themselves shun tomatoes. In China, about the only way you can get a person to eat a tomato is by slicing it and liberally sprinkling sugar over each slice. After the Spanish Conquest, peppers and sweet potatoes became firmly entrenched in the Chinese diet. But the tomato found no home here. We say tomato; they say "foreign eggplant" (fan qie, in Mandarin, anyway).