The Farther from Its Ori­gin, the Bet­ter the Prod­uct


Special Focus - - Contents - Cen Rong岑嵘

If you’ve seen the doc­u­men­tary ABi­teof China , you will deem that the best food comes from its place of ori­gin. In the film, they ex­plain it this way: “( Lin’an City.) When the Lei bam­boo sea­son comes to an end, the story of the moun­taineers’ food has just be­gun. Un­der the bro­ken branches and withered leaves, a slit ap­pears in the soil, show­ing the emerg­ing bam­boo shoots, which is a very rare type known as ‘ yel­low mud arch.’ Only three or four of these can be found on a whole moun­tain. It has a finer, more del­i­cate and crisper tex­ture than any other spring bam­boo shoots, with a taste mirac­u­lously sim­i­lar to pears. What is even more amaz­ing is that the qual­ity of ‘yel­low mud arch’ de­gen­er­ates very quickly af­ter it is un­earthed. As a re­sult, the time from har­vest­ing to pro­cess­ing must be cal­cu­lated in min­utes.”

The taste of sea­sonal bam­boo shoots in Lin’an might be bet­ter than that of any other places, but what about other foods? Can­taloupes in Xin­jiang, Aksu ap­ples, Korla pears, Tian­jin

pears, and man­gos and co­conuts in Hainan... Are they all bet­ter lo­cally than else­where?

The an­swer might sur­prise you. From an eco­nomic point of view, the farther away from the place of ori­gin, the bet­ter the qual­ity. This ap­plies to many foods, but how can that be the case?

Ar­men Al­bert Alchian, an Amer­i­can econ­o­mist, once asked a crit­i­cal ques­tion. Florida or­anges are fa­mous and sold through­out the coun­try, but why is the qual­ity of or­anges sold in New York gen­er­ally bet­ter than those sold in Florida? Alchian ex­plained that the sale prices of good or­anges and poorer ones in­clude trans­porta­tion costs. Since the cost of freight­ing is fixed, it is more cost- ef­fec­tive to sell bet­ter qual­ity fruits. That way con­sumers in New York will be more will­ing to pay the higher price, which in turn will stim­u­late re­tail­ers to in­crease their sup­ply.

Alchian’s stu­dents re­ferred to this phe­nom­e­non as the “citrus prin­ci­ple.” Since fruit traders have to trans­port fruits over long dis­tances and pay the same amount for trans­porta­tion, they are in­cen­tivized to pick the best fruit for sale. This phe­nom­e­non not only oc­curs for Florida’s or­anges but also ap­plies to Wash­ing­ton’s ap­ples, the best of which are shipped to the East Coast ( hence the al­ter­nate name: “Wash­ing­ton Ap­ple Phe­nom­e­non”). The im­ported fruits we see in su­per­mar­kets are uni­form in size and at­trac­tive in color, while the fruits pro­duced lo­cally are of­ten scarred and ugly.

This ques­tion is also ad­dressed in the doc­u­men­tary A Bite of China. “( Diqing Ti­betan Au­ton­o­mous Pre­fec­ture.) Mat­su­take ac­qui­si­tion ad­heres to a strict rat­ing sys­tem, with 48 dif­fer­ent lev­els. Mat­su­takes are strictly sorted out by lev­els ac­cord­ing to their places of ori­gin and care­fully pro­cessed by mer­chants at the fastest speed, since it has a preser­va­tion limit of three days. The pur­chase price of one mat­su­take in Diqing is 80 yuan, but 6 hours later, it will ap­pear in a su­per­mar­ket of Tokyo at the price of 700 yuan...” The mat­su­takes one gets in Tokyo is def­i­nitely bet­ter than those you can buy in Diqing be­cause only the best mat­su­takes are wor­thy of be­ing se­lected out and shipped to Ja­pan.

In ad­di­tion to food, we also en­counter this phe­nom­e­non in our daily lives. When writ­ing a book about gam­bling, Daniel Selig­man, the ed­i­tor of For­tune mag­a­zine, ob­served a pat­tern. In Las Ve­gas, a gam­bler com­ing from afar tends to lose more money than one liv­ing nearby. Sim­i­larly, we will also find that peo­ple binge shop­ping in bou­tique shop­ping malls are of­ten guests from afar. The rea­son be­hind this is the same as the “citrus prin­ci­ple.” Since guests need to pay a high amount for air­fare and ho­tel fees, they might as well play two more hands in the casino or buy more bags in the shop­ping mall.

( From Shen­zhen Busi­ness Daily , May 9, 2018. Trans­la­tion: Lu Qiongyao)

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