The Empire of Red Gold
Jean-Baptiste Malet and Xavier Deleu
France 2017 70 min
If you see only one documentary film this year, make sure it’s The Empire of Red Gold. The director Jean-Baptist Malet, an investigative journalist working for (among others) Le Monde Diplomatique and Charlie Hebdo, has written a book on the same issue: both his book and the film reveal the results of two years of research by Malet and his crew from 2014 to 2016 exploring the production, marketing, and consumption of tomato concentrate from France to China to the US to Italy.
Not only tomato paste
Today, the tomato is the key ingredient in a great majority of world cuisines. The biggest market for tomato concentrate is Africa with its fast-growing population. Nigeria has close to 200 million inhabitants – the farmers there traditionally grow tomatoes, but at the moment the local tomato paste factories only repackage the imported tomato paste. The Nigerian government analysed various tomato paste brands available on their market. Some contained little or even no tomato at all. One of the reasons for this is that most of the tomato paste produced comes from China, which interestingly does not include tomatoes in its cuisine.
Still, China is the leading producer of tomato concentrate in the world. So much so that even when the paste and its derivatives, for example ketchup or tomato juice, are sold in packages that declare that the product was produced, say, in France, there is a great probability that the paste itself was imported from China.
«The Nigerian government analysed various tomato paste brands available on their market. Some contained little or even no tomato at all.»
The changes China has introduced to the production and marketing of tomato paste put China at the forefront of global capitalism.
Investigative journalism at its best
One of the fascinating things about this documentary is that it is a living proof that media and journalists are still constitutive of democracy. Malet meticulously researched the background of the globalised production of tomato paste, and also constructed a masterful presentation of the results of this investigation.
In the midst of contemporary media practices, where one and the same content is recycled and simplified to please the audiences looking to confirm what they already know, here is a journalist who actually did his job and disclosed the facts that the public and consumers were not aware of.
«The African farmers stopped growing tomatoes because the imported paste was cheaper than their freshly produced fruit.»
The Empire of Red Gold, being a result of investigative journalism, bears several features of news media, including drawings and diagrams. But it also has a strong narrative structure, a quality we usually find in fiction cinema, including a considerable amount of suspense: as the film evolves, the viewer gradually learns that nothing is as it seems.
We witness the stakeholders themselves being taken by surprise – industrialists producing tomato paste who are losing their market because it’s too expensive – as well as consumers who do not know where the red paste on their plates comes from and what it contains. Often their destiny takes unexpected turns. As Chinese manufacturers of tomato paste entered the African markets for example, the African farmers stopped growing tomatoes because the imported paste was cheaper than their freshly produced fruit.
Today several of them are among the migrants who, in search of a more prosperous future, are risking their lives to cross the Sahel desert and the Mediterranean to come to Europe and find work as illegal pickers on tomato fields in Southern Italy.
«This documentary is a living proof that media and journalists are still constitutive of democracy.»
In a certain way, The Empire of Red Gold proves that knowledge is power. Perhaps tomato concentrate was the key mover of history – the industrial capitalism in the 20th, and the global capitalism in the 21st Century – simply because it is a universal food ingredient. And perhaps it does not take much to avoid the devastating effects its contemporary mode of production has for the farmers, food processors and consumers, once you have the knowledge of them.
Several things changed after the film was completed. The Italian government has started to introduce the obligation that the origin of the tomatoes used for the production of tomato paste and other by-products is to be clearly declared on the packaging.
«Tomato concentrate put China at the forefront of global capitalism.»
However at this point little has changed, probably because the stocks of the imported paste still hold. More changes are expected to come soon. A significant push in the same direction would be if the European Union would follow Italy’s example for the benefit of its consumers, farmers and food manufacturers. Thanks to The Empire of Red Gold, no one can say they do not know.
The Empire of Red Gold is available on Vimeo.