Louisiana and Vietnam, two regions on opposite sides of the world that share much in common.
Both the Louisiana coast and Vietnam’s Mekong delta formed over the past 6,000 years by mighty rivers; the Mississippi in Louisiana and the Mekong in Vietnam. The “boot” of Louisiana was created by Mississippi River, the 4th largest river in the world that drains nearly 50% of the North American continent. The great river was once replete with vast amounts of silt and sediment from the Rocky Mountains and Central Plains that were subsequently trapped downriver by native plants such as giant 300 foot cypress trees and enormous 150 foot bamboo canes to build land. Fresh water fed the growth of the native plants that created North America’s largest wetlands. Similarly, the Mekong Delta was created by the mighty Mekong River carrying silt and sediment from the Himalayas that was collected by mangroves, the walking bushes, and deposited to build land and create one of the earth’s most abundant coastal wetlands.
These two muddy river deltas, where fresh water meets tidal salt water, create vital ecosystems of immense biodiversity that are home to two of the world’s largest fisheries and migratory flyways. These regions of incredible abundance have also given rise to world renown cultural foodways, traditions and cuisines. Both regions are known for their spicy cuisines that are quite similar in many ways, especially their unique soups and sandwiches. Gumbo and PoBoys are staples in Louisiana while Pho and Bahn Mi are common foods in Vietnam. Interestingly, the sandwiches of both regions are served on French Bread as both regions were once French territories. Additionally, the abundance of food produced in these regions makes a significant contribution to the food supply of the entire world.
The Mekong Delta is the world’s second largest producer of rice while the Louisiana Coast and Wetlands produce approximately 75% of all shellfish consumed in North America. Southeast Louisiana is home to over 15,000 Vietnamese, most of whom are descendants of the approximate 2100 war refugees that came to Louisiana after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Many of the Vietnamese, several of whom made the transoceanic trek in fishing boats, settled in the swamps east of New Orleans and found the climate and region to be quite similar to Vietnam. Thus, they quickly adapted and began fishing, farming and foraging just as they did in their native homeland.
Louisiana and Vietnam also share a darker common thread in that they are two of the most rapidly disappearing regions in the world due to several interconnected factors; the destruction of native vegetation and habitat, the industrial production of energy, the industrialization and commercialization of the mighty rivers and the global commodity food industry that consumes approximately 50% of the fossil fuel energy extracted from the earth. Thus, both regions are being decimated by industrial energy production, which in turn is being used to produce industrial commodity food that is the largest contributor to global climate change and ocean rise, which in turn escalates coastal erosion and land loss.
Louisiana and Vietnam are both drastically impacted by industrialized aquaculture in the Mekong Delta and along the Vietnam Coast. Industrialized aquaculture is the major cause of Vietnam losing approximately 50% of its mangrove forests in the past 40 years. Thus, industrialized aquaculture is destroying both the land and the natural wetlands habit for wild seafood. Meanwhile on the other side of the globe, cheap Asian shrimp imports enter the US unregulated, due to trade agreements, causing dockside prices in Louisiana to drastically drop from $4.50-US per pound to as low as $1.50-US per pound. A price that has forced many Louisiana shrimpers out of business. To make matters worse, imported industrial farm-raised shrimp and seafood often enters the U.S. market diseased and contaminated due to a combination of factors that include, contaminated industrial aquaculture facilities, lack of sufficient inspection of seafood imports in the US and trade agreements that now supersede domestic laws and regulations aimed to protect the health and safety of the domestic population. When food is treated as a commodity for trade, the fishers and farmers that produce the food get paid less, consumers pay more for lower quality food while commodity traders make sizable profits from an unsustainable and energy intensive system.
How much longer can the world survive when traders take food from one region and ship it to another region that then has to purchase low quality commodity food from yet another region in order feed its people? Thus, when the unsustainable global food industry fails and the vital lands and hardworking people that fish and farm to feed the world eventually vanish, where will the world get its food?
Author’s Note: Vanishing Foodways was launched at Terra Madre 2016 by the Louisiana-Vietnam delegation that was was sponsored by Slow Food New Orleans during my tenure as chapter chair. The cross-cultural delegation hosted two pop-ups in Turin to share the food, cultures and stories of these two amazing regions created by two giant river basins. I will chair a Vanishing Foodways panel at Slow Fish 2017 in Genoa, in part, to expand the narrative by collecting stories from delegates representing other river basins. At the conclusion of Slow Fish, I will travel to Vietnam to collect stories and sample food along the Mekong River basin. Upon my return, Vanishing Foodways will participate in a variety of events and panels at Slow Food Nations in Denver with the goal of increasing both the awareness and understanding of how river basins connect the land and the oceans to create a dynamic global ecosystem. So, be on the look-out for updates as the Vanishing Foodways narrative continues to grow.
by Gary Granata
Slow Food Governor – Louisiana