Netflix's new series Rotten looks at global supply chains of six particular food commodities—dairy milk, garlic, honey, peanuts, chicken and fish—using litigation around these markets to spin stories of intrigue and grotesque awe. The third episode focuses on a dispute between Chinese mega-exporters of garlic that somehow ropes in New Mexico farmers who regularly sell garlic at the Santa Fe Farmers Market. The framing of the episode, as well as the other five, places Anglo-American farmers at the center of a narrative that depicts this country's agricultural production as a victim of forces of global trade. Rotten is marketed to the podcast crowd, but its themes are unmistakably Trumpian.
In “Garlic Breath,” an international trade lawyer named Ted Hume sets out in New Mexico in search of somebody who can help out his clients. Hume is representing several Chinese garlic companies who want the US Department of Commerce to review the practices of one of their main competitors, the Chinese garlic exporter Harmoni International Spice, who they suspect of skimping out on American tarrifs. Hume eventually finds Stanley Crawford, a garlic farmer in Rio Arriba County who is willing to sign on as an interested domestic party for the review. Crawford, a published novelist and nonfiction author, also eventually convinces two other farmers, Avrum Katz and Kristen Davenport of Boxcar Farm, to sign on as domestic party. (Davenport is also a former journalist.)
Katz and Davenport regard Crawford with a reverence bordering on naiveté, which may have served as their cover for what happened next: Harmoni, the export giant, files a racketeering lawsuit against Katz and Davenport, Crawford, Hume and a number of their Chinese partners. The suit alleges that the New Mexican farmers had a clear interest in undermining its business: It turns out, according to the episode, that Ted Hume's Chinese clients were the direct competitors of Harmoni, making Katz, Davenport and Crawford a part of the conspiracy, in Harmoni's telling. Surprise!
The rest of the episode charts the fallout between Crawford and Katz/Davenport, and also zeroes in on some of the businessmen in China who had been working with Hume. Apparently, Katz/Davenport had been promised a huge windfall if the claim against Harmoni wound up successful, but it never came. In another surprise twist, Katz/Davenport decide to switch sides, sending a letter to the Department of Commerce on Harmoni's behalf. Suddenly, the garlic families in New Mexico who live and work within 50 miles of each other find themselves in two opposing parties representing the largest garlic producers in China.
The centering on American farmers makes sense in a complicated story about trade law and lost revenue. Crawford tells SFR he found parts of the episode "very moving," but wishes more attention had focused on these broader supply-chain issues than the fissure between him and Katz/Davenport.
Toward the end, he says, the episode "went away from the big issue, which is Harmoni's basically getting away with paying no anti-dumping duty for years now; it [left] that and [focused on] me and Boxcar Farm and our differences."
The Department of Commerce eventually issued a resolution in favor of Harmoni, according to the episode, but Ted Hume is appealing. The racketeering lawsuit was also thrown out. The New Mexicans, we are left to assume, continue growing garlic, eking out an existence as Harmoni continues to pump America full of garlic allegedly peeled in Chinese prisons.
"Garlic Breath" is one of several in the Rotten series that raise the issue of "impure" goods arriving to US shores from China and other third-party Asian countries. It seems only right that the show comes out now, as the Trump administration trumpets a nationalist line on commerce and agriculture. Last November, the Commerce Department launched an investigation into imports of Chinese aluminum sheeting, the first such anti-dumping case since 1985, claiming that the US was protecting domestic producers of alloy sheeting.
The episode raises the specter of American companies colluding with Chinese counterparts to take advantage of loopholes in trade policy, rather than pinning blame only on China. Crawford thinks this point should have been further underscored in the episode. (Attempts to contact Katz and Davenport were unsuccessful.)
"Collusion of US industries with other industries happens," he tells SFR. "If every importer can game the system and pay little in anti-dumping duties, is it [China's] fault or is it our fault? My sense is the failure is here, with the Department of Commerce and Border Protection."
The alloy case broadcasts an "America First" message, similar to what has resonated among nationalist parties in Europe. In all of these parties, nationalism has been inextricably tied to a White National identity, and politicians like Trump have made little attempt to hide the racism and xenophobia implicit in their platforms. This plays to his base: Around 90 percent of American farmers are white, and taking a harder line on China explicitly appeals to this portion of the electorate that overwhelmingly voted Trump. Rotten appeals to a MAGA sense for what makes America great, including small-patch farmers and others traditionally associated with an arrangement that still makes it difficult for non-white, non-male people to start farms.
For anybody who's been curious where the stuff you buy at the supermarket comes from, Rotten is a fascinating series, and on some level is certainly an indictment of the free-trade economic policies. But either by way of unthoughtful framing or purposeful messaging, it's also advertising for the America First platform, and ammunition for calls to beef up border security and trade protections. At a time when those in power are openly seizing opportunities to craft soft-authoritarian narratives, artists could stand to be more sensitive to the political contexts in which their work is produced and enjoyed.