An embroidered silk detail on the sixteenth-century linen panel The Shepheard Buss (The Shepherd’s Kiss) depicts an adder lurking beneath a strawberry plant. The pattern evokes a common metaphor of the time, taken from a line by the poet Virgil, where the fruit and its leaves represent an apparent good concealing the real malevolence below—the origin of the proverbial ‘snake in the grass.’ The strawberry held an exalted status in Medieval thought, and its use as a symbol was both widespread and of comparatively early origin; such that its fruit, flowers and leaves are among the most frequently occurring objects in European art. They stain the fatal white handkerchief that passes through Shakespeare’s Othello—a mark of fidelity and chastity coupled with deceitful intentions—and giant strawberries are eaten by figures frolicking naked in the central panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, a powerful representation of the ephemeral nature of earthly pleasures and ambitions. In Christian imagery, they were almost always treated as “the symbol of perfect righteousness.” An old folk tradition holds that the Virgin Mary led the souls of dead children to pick strawberries on the feast of St. John the Baptist, the fruit standing for the garden of Eden and the food of the saved in Paradise. In other contexts, the three partitioned leaves were a reminder of the Holy Trinity, while the red fruits, hanging downward, were the drops of the blood of Christ.
Strawberries were also a favoured motif during the great flowering of domestic embroidery during the Elizabethan era. They were an exception to the Elizabethan gardener’s belief that a plant’s neighbours determined its quality: even though the ground-creeping strawberry plant was exposed to every sort of contamination, no evil companionship could taint their purity. Whereas embroidery during the Renaissance was intended for the church, the Elizabethans' needlework was secularised and reflected their love for nature. Amateur needlewomen drew their designs from pattern books, along with woodcuts and engravings in bestiaries, and herbals and illustrations in natural history books. Rather than simply serving as guides to nature, these books were storehouses for similes and moral lessons that instructed the preacher and layperson on how to live righteously. Domestic needleworkers placed strawberries among flowers and trees, birds, animals and insects, filling their homes with beauty and stitching strawberries onto every conceivable surface. Rosemary Freedman has remarked that this decoration was universally emblematic: “Wherever the needle could penetrate the tendency to personification and allegory finds expression.”
Who could have imagined that sewing needles and strawberries would be linked together in such a violent way hundreds of years later? The first, on 9th September 2018, ended with a man being treated in hospital for severe abdominal pain after swallowing half a sewing needle lodged inside a strawberry bought from a Woolworths supermarket in North Brisbane. Three days later, a child in Gladstone bit into a needle embedded in a strawberry packed in his lunchbox. By the time the contamination crisis was over there were 186 reported needle incidents around the country, with copycats, hoaxes and tampering incidents spreading to all six states. These were taken at face value, as a straightforward story of saboteurs and pranksters sticking pins into fruit with malevolent intent.
Our understanding of even the most mundane social and political thought, according to the cognitive linguist George Lakoff, requires an appreciation of the extensive use of metaphorical concepts embedded in everyday language. Just as Elizabethan needleworkers gazed at wild strawberries and found in them everything that was beautiful and lovely about their world, the modern commercial strawberry embodies much of the way food is produced in industrial agriculture and the social pressures under late capitalism. And wherever the needle penetrates, the tendency for symbolism finds expression.
In the beginning, plastic punnets full of pierced red flesh were the handbaskets of fear. A seven-year-old girl in South Australia found a sewing needle inside a punnet of Western Australian strawberries; another needle was found inside a banana, and punctured Australian strawberries even turned up in New Zealand. Soon, Queensland’s chief health officer was urging consumers to throw away their strawberries and wholesalers were slashing their prices, selling boxes of strawberries that would ordinarily fetch $16 for $3. As supermarket chains pulled punnets from their shelves, growers accused health authorities, the government and the media of creating a ‘hysteria' that threatened the 500-million-dollar national strawberry market. The Association of Queensland Strawberry Growers, the peak representative in the state with a third of the nation’s 620 farmers, called the needles an act of “commercial terrorism.” Speaking for the mood of many, South Australian farmer Brenton Sherry warned that producers in his state could be wiped out within a month, adding: “Strawberries may never return.”
The needles seemed to unleash the dark libidinal fears of those who see adders lurking everywhere in the long grass of polite society. In a closed, grimly racist Facebook group I monitor, one member fretted that sewing needles were being placed in fruit by African gangs or ISIS and went on to speculate that those responsible were also, improbably, lighting the small spot fires being reported around the start of Queensland’s bushfire season. While Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud labelled those responsible “parasites,” a Griffith University criminologist told the ABC such berry-violence was “the epitome of free will” and posited the needles were a calculated act to instil fear. The Australian collected its online stories under a splash page entitled ‘FRUIT TERROR', and a senior security analyst writing for the newspaper suggested counter-terrorism measures were required to shore up the food system, with growers linking up with law enforcement and the intelligence community—the national security of the country tied to its bountiful production of juicy fruits. Unsurprisingly, the term commonly used by the media and polity was “sabotage,” as though the needles were the attacks of a foreign agent on production during a time of war.
Sewing needles were hardly the most dangerous by-product of the industrial food system that year. On four occasions in 2018, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised 325 million Americans to avoid eating romaine lettuce altogether, while the agency hunted for the cause of the Shiga toxin-producing E. coli bacteria that had, by that stage, infected people across eleven states, sickening at least thirty-two and hospitalising thirteen. Likewise, rockmelons tainted with the listeria bacteria led to seven deaths, and a miscarriage, across Australia in 2018. The contaminated melons were ultimately traced to a single farm in New South Wales, which had been affected by dust storms and was scrubbing and washing the fruit with a chlorine solution prior to packing. If indeed the needles were an act of sabotage—as some sections of the media and polity claim—then what motivated the agents and who (or what) was the enemy? It behoves many of us to answer why we are more terrorised by the thought of a group of individuals wielding the cold steel of malevolence than we are the seemingly unavoidable—but far more harmful and widespread—consequences of an impersonal food system.
For one, fears about the influence of migrants and hostile outsiders have always attended the fruit picking industry. Eight years earlier, Today Tonight reported shocking conditions for migrant workers in the industry under the tagline of ‘Asians stealing Aussie jobs’. Underpaid or not paid at all, abused and degraded, the workers filmed at one farm bemoaned that “strawberries come from hell.”
Merely three days after the first needle appeared, the Association of Queensland Strawberry Growers was already on record stating that a “disgruntled former employee” could be responsible for the tampering, in direct contradiction to the police. “We’re not agreeing with that at all at this point in time,” countered Detective Acting Chief Superintendent Terry Lawrence, dismissing the Grower’s Association statements as “speculation.” One wonders how the association could be so brazen in its announcement; so convinced of its suspicions that a former worker with a grudge against the industry was behind the incident.
It had only been a few months since the Fair Work Ombudsman released the final report of its three-year Harvest Trail Inquiry and revealed how some workers in Australian horticulture were “bonded like slaves” to dodgy labour hire contractors. After visiting hundreds of farms around the country, the inquiry found an industry that relies on migrants and backpackers for labour, and uncovered instances where workers were threatened with having their visas withdrawn unless they remained with the company, or driven to ATMs to provide money upfront for a “job bond,” or ripped off for thousands of dollars and housed in substandard accommodation. There have been attempts in recent years to create an auditable industry standard to identify legally compliant labour hire companies, but signing on is voluntary.
Growers themselves are under intense pressure to produce fruit at the lowest possible cost for Coles and Woolworths, which account for eighty per cent of the fresh berries sold in Australia. Strawberries Australia chair John Calle has complained that while it costs around $2 to produce a punnet of strawberries, many growers were selling them for between $1.50 and $3.50. “Sometimes we’re making 20 cents after costs,” he said. The Strawberries Australia website notes that workers are the last obstacle to full-automation of farms: “Picking labour cost remains as a major issue, as mechanical harvesting is not an option for strawberry fruit.”
The propensity of consumers to fix these issues—to ‘vote with their dollar’—was addressed in the Harvest Trail Inquiry report, which found that only eleven per cent of shoppers would be willing to pay more for produce labelled with a “domestic fair trade” certification denoting a farm that had been audited for providing workers with fair wages and conditions. Even more discouraging was that just under half of all respondents said they would buy the ethical product even if the price were the same as other produce.
Two months after the strawberries were deemed safe to eat again, police arrested the first person with an alleged connection to the needle tampering. My Ut Trinh, fifty—who was born in Vietnam but came to Australia as a refugee twenty years ago—was a picking supervisor at the Berrylicious/Berry Obsession fruit farm north of Brisbane. She faces seven counts of contamination of goods with intent to cause economic loss, normally carrying a three-year maximum penalty, but police have alleged “aggravation,” which increases the maximum jail term to ten years. After Ms Trinh’s arrest, the Association of Queensland Strawberry Growers vice president Adrian Schultz said he hoped the industry could move on. “This should put a full stop to this situation,” he said.
It is possible that no other fruit has been as radically transformed by industrial agriculture as the strawberry. In a 1771 article for Encyclopédie Méthodique Botanique, the French botanist Antoine Nicolas Duchesne—one of the most important chroniclers of the early development of the modern garden strawberry—lists twenty-five varieties including the small woodland strawberries, fraises des bois, still beloved by backyard gardeners in Europe. The Roman poet Ovid tells that humans lived on mountain strawberries that nature brought forth without cultivation. The musk strawberry, otherwise known by the delightful name of hautboy, grew wild in the forests of central Europe and was widely cultivated by gardeners for centuries. Their complex aroma was said to be so powerful that a few berries could perfume a room, with hints of honey, musk and wine and—according to a recent analysis by German flavour chemists—notes of melon, raspberry and cheese. With tender white flesh and brownish red skin, the soft berries are mentioned in Jane Austen’s Emma, where guests at a garden party rave about their superior flavour.
Arguably the most important event in the history of the modern strawberry is the 1714 journey of Fragaria chiloensis from the beaches and mountains of Chile to France, which introduced the Old World to the large berries of the New. A French spy working for King Louis XIV was so taken by the large fruits of the Chilean plant that he tended to five specimens on the six-month voyage home. The spy’s family name, Frézier, happened to be an ancient one deriving from fraise, the French word for wild strawberry. His decades of experimentation and cross-breeding of the female plants he brought home eventually yielded the garden strawberry we know today. The Chilean berry, already cultivated for centuries by Indigenous Chileans, was pollinated with Fragaria virginiana, a hardy meadow variety from North America (otherwise known as the Scarlet or Virginian strawberry) that was popular in English gardens at the time. The new berry inherited the hardiness, sharp flavour and redness of the Virginian, and the firmness and large fruit size of the Chilean.
It may have originated in France, but it was the English who first produced the best specimens of this strawberry, Fragaria ananassa—so named because its perfume and shape was said to resemble a pineapple—which would later spread to Europe and North America and emerge as the first iteration of the hundreds of commercial varieties grown today. California alone now produces a billion tonnes of berries each year, but until the end of the nineteenth-century nearly all strawberries in the US came from plants growing wild in pastures and meadows between farming seasons. Following the introduction of Fragaria ananassa, the history of commercial strawberries has been the repeated substitution of new varieties for old and, subsequently, the rapid expansion of productivity.
Breeders over the decades have favoured commercial properties such as large fruit, high yield, firmness, attractive and uniform appearance, long shelf-life and resistance to pests and diseases. By concentrating on these genetic factors, others have been lost, namely some of those responsible for flavour. Writing for The Conversation, University of Birmingham chemist Simon Cotton describes experiments that have shown wild varieties of strawberries like the wood strawberry and musk strawberry have a greater range of flavour molecules than those found in supermarkets today.
In some ways, the berries we eat all these years later are much the same. They still strike a fine balance between sweetness and acidity, one that shifts in favour of the former as the berries ripen. They still rely on changes to the concentration and composition of anthocyanins to develop their vibrant red pigments. However, what is missing most from commercial berries is fragrance, the original quality that gave the strawberry genus its name. Even the first cultivated berries of Fragaria ananassa were once noted for their extraordinary richness and diversity of flavour, impressing fruit connoisseurs of the time with their strong hints of raspberry, apricot, cherry and currant. Aiming for commercial production has, in other words, lead to bland, generic fruit.
As late as the 1950s, strawberries were only available in England for a few weeks in summer, usually coinciding with Wimbledon. Alongside genetic changes within the strawberry that made them hardier, the development of refrigeration and cool chain management has helped preserve fresh strawberries long enough to open up national and international commodity markets. Soils used for growing strawberries are often fumigated and covered with long plastic tarps to control microorganisms prior to planting, and experimentation with planting techniques that manipulate the earliness of crops has further blurred the traditional production seasons between climatic regions, meaning berries are available year-round.
These developments are written plainly in Australian horticulture industry R&D reports. You can track the development of new cultivars, with names like ‘Red Rhapsody’, ‘Parisienne Kiss’ and ‘Sundrench,’ from their earliest trials in the National Strawberry Breeding Program to the moment they enter commercial production after four years of development. The breeding program, funded by industry and state and federal governments, has the specific aim of creating a “nationally more profitable strawberry industry” and selects varieties from its trials based on criteria weighted between profitability and “consumer-related traits.” These R&D documents hint at a broader trend in the production of food: that the profit motive directs farmers towards particular varieties, encourages investment in certain types of equipment, preserves larger farms over small producers, determines processing and distribution and even shapes our tastes and preferences.
The strawberry is a living contradiction of the capitalist promise: the unstated justification that it is the only economic system that provides us with better stuff. Expecting a world of better gadgets, more comfortable lives, everything in supposed abundance and for our enjoyment, hides a process of homogenisation and mass-production; one that requires the biosphere be destroyed and most of the planet’s population worked to the grave. The poor and middle classes are exhorted to cherish the system that makes supposed luxuries like enormous televisions and strawberries affordable, at the same time as home ownership, education and child care slip beyond their reach. Supermarkets work hard to play on the cultural imagination that strawberries manifest as a natural abundance that simply pops out of the earth—seasonal treats that sing of springtime and harvest—rather than a manufactured food embodying hundreds of years of refinement. This history shows that instead of tastier and more intoxicating berries, what capitalism actually excels at creating is more profitable commodities.
The rebound came as suddenly as the crash. With millions of dollars lost from the strawberry industry, thousands of people around the country attended fundraisers and bought five-dollar strawberry sundaes to support struggling farmers. NewsCorp reported enthusiastically on Qantas’s “act of kindness” when the airline bought a tonne of berries—equivalent to 4000 punnets—to make strawberry daquiris and compote for their business lounge travellers, with staff volunteers cutting the fruit to ensure the safety of their delicate mouths. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and others encouraged consumer activism with the federal government’s “cut them up, don’t cut them out” campaign and the “SmashaStrawb” hashtag, giving this crisis of consumerism a fitting solution. It was our national duty to buy more strawberries and eat them with pride.
Public sentiment seemed to turn on these narratives of desperate farmers, laid-off workers, and the compelling footage of hundreds of tonnes of ripe and perfectly edible strawberries being buried in ditches by tractors at the height of the harvest season. While most responses focused on the economic loss and the tragic wastage of fruit, what went unremarked was the deeply strange spectacle that less than 200 needles haphazardly inserted into strawberries could bring the entire Australian industry to its knees.
Part of the reason why there was so much fruit to bury in ditches was that, since 1998, strawberry production in Australia has nearly tripled—an exponential growth that Strawberries Australia notes has outpaced the increase in the national population. In the same period, the number of strawberry growers more than halved, part of the inexorable march towards monopoly and consolidation. In the words of the strawberry industry, this production boom is thanks to increased consumer demand brought about by its research and development programs. The American economist J.K. Galbraith wrote sixty years ago that, contrary to popular wisdom, it is not consumer demand alone that drives commodity production. Instead, producers induce more wants and shape human needs and thereby create the need for further production.
The tragedy of the commodity, a term devised by the sociologist Stefano B. Longo and his colleagues in their book of the same title, is a story of a social order that pursues endless growth, intensifying pressure on ecosystems as ever more raw materials are necessary to create commodities for market. Instead of reducing resource consumption, efficiencies brought about by technological change are directed towards ever more intensive production, and paradoxically lead to greater demand on ecosystems. This commodification structure is focused on the outcome of an accountant’s balance sheet—not the wellbeing of farming communities, the survival of farmers, the flourishing of wildlife populations, the resiliency of ecosystems, or even, in the final analysis, providing food. “The rhetoric of mainstream economics,” they write, “is that these other qualitative outcomes will eventually emerge through the pursuit of profit; the reality is that, time and again, they have not.”
These pressures are not unique, and they are certainly not limited to strawberries. They are changes that can be tracked in the histories of avocados, tomatoes and Atlantic salmon. Apples have undergone a similar transformation of marketing, genetic meddling and homogenisation. The New York Times has profiled a former detective who spends his time tracking down the remaining orchards—sometimes consisting of just a few individual trees—of the Pacific Northwest’s lost apples. He hunts for the thousands of varieties that all but disappeared with the advent of industrial agriculture, where fifteen commercial varieties now constitute ninety percent of the apple market. The old varieties, a commercial apple farmer told the Times, are no longer worth growing because they either “bruise easily, don’t store well or don’t produce enough apples per tree.” And economic pressure is relentless. “Land costs money,” he said.
This is why it is reductive to consider strawberries rotting in ditches as buried food instead of a routine outcome of the system in which plants are grown not to feed people, but to supply commodity markets. The needles obscured the fact that massive wastage is already inherent to our food system, where most waste is incurred from the farm gate to check-out and from the check-out to consumer, and as much as forty per cent of fruit and vegetables don’t even make it to shelves for cosmetic reasons. Meanwhile, households are coerced into feeling individual responsibility for taking action at the end of the supply chain, where it is perhaps least effective. Like the flesh of the berries themselves, demand has been plumped up by cheap prices, mass production and consumer expectations. The lifecycle of strawberries adapted to the social metabolism of the market, geared for perpetual production; commodities inflated to such a level that all it took was a small disturbance to bring about a collapse. Just a little pinprick.
A freer and more natural artistic style spread through Europe toward the end of the 1300s. This flowering of human tenderness began with St Francis of Assisi, who aroused in his fellow European monks a love for nature and the need to express it. As the artists of their time, monks were tasked with illuminating prayer books and religious texts that they copied by hand and filled with tiny illustrations and paintings. In their newly awoken sentiments they began to look at the world around them, to see the details of nature and of everyday life, and paint what appealed to them and what they considered beautiful.
This new artistic spirit coincided with the desire of the mystics to come nearer to, and glorify, the Virgin Mary. Spending hours in contemplation of her and the Infant Jesus, they wrote poems in her honour, bestowing upon her all the virtues, and calling her by the names of all the flowers. “They lost themselves in veneration of her,” writes the biologist G.M. Darrow, “and when they made pictures of her, they adorned them with all that was precious and rare.”
Even in a milieu where every painted object held a particular significance, the strawberry stood apart from all other symbolic fruits. In The Madonna with Wild Strawberry, Mary holds aloft a leaved wild strawberry; in others, she sits inside her enclosed garden, on a bed of strawberry plants, adorned by a crown of strawberry leaves. Just as millennia earlier, when the Romans associated them with the Goddess Venus, wild strawberries were a symbol of devotion and the heart.
Jennifer M Silva has charted the corrosive effects of neoliberalism on intimacy in her book Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty. The hundreds of young Americans she interviews repeatedly exhibit a “hardened” character that prides itself on independence from others. They feel unable to make any sort of long-term commitment in a social environment of competition and insecurity that erodes their ability to imagine a secure future. Rather than seeing a partner as someone who might share these stresses, they view relationships as an additional source of stress. Into this space of rapid change and tenuous loyalties, the language and institution of therapy—and the heroic self-transformation it promises—enters as a means of making sense of a world where institutions can no longer be relied upon to support or nurture individuals.
This proliferation of therapeutic narratives, and the fusing of psychology and consumerism, gives rise to what sociologist Eva Illouz calls “emotional capitalism.” According to Illouz, romantic relations in the internet age are not only organised within the market, they themselves have become commodities produced “on an assembly line, to be consumed fast, efficiently, cheaply and in great abundance.” Illouz writes that at the same time as economic relations have become deeply emotional, intimate relations have become defined by models of bargaining, exchange and equity. The result, she says, is that the vocabulary of emotions is now more exclusively dictated by the market, a consumerist logic that unleashes fantasy but inhibits romantic feeling.
As the needle saga came to a close, so too was my relatively brief and capricious relationship with an ex-girlfriend in Sydney. A short summary of why it didn’t work would abound with clichés from the late-stage romantic mode: the timing wasn’t right, we wanted different things. We told each other about our heartache, and lamented our inability to make things work despite our best intentions. Around the same time as I started writing this column, she changed the default emoji of our Facebook messenger thread to a strawberry; soon its digital green calyx and vivid red skin, dreamed by a Unicode designer, became a regular substitute in our conversation for the blue thumbs-up or a red heart.
Whenever I was consumed with yearning, I returned to Facebook to read our exchanges and would see this strawberry, the last message she sent me. Maybe anyone who has been through a painful breakup would recognise the strange logic of this: it was as if I wanted to hold myself voluntarily in that space, and stay there until it no longer hurt me. As T.E. Lawrence puts it: “till the burnt child no longer feels the fire.” Through it all, I knew I still loved her; on some days this meant nothing, and other times it meant everything. And so, while everyone else freaked out over needles, the strawberry began to take on a new meaning for me: it represented devotion, a reminder that I love. It showed my capacity for these feelings despite the atomisation and wilting of intimacy under neoliberalism, and that true connection can be reclaimed, growing free and untainted from the noxious plants that surround us in the enclosed garden of late capitalism. It became, unexpectedly, a symbol of all that was precious and rare. •
This piece was originally published in The Lifted Brow #41. Get your copy here.
Michael Dulaney is a writer and journalist based in Sydney. His work has been published by Griffith Review and The Monthly, among others. He tweets to a small audience of bots at @michael_dulaney
Natalia Zajaz is a cartoonist and printmaker from the Blue Mountains.