Globalization: A Pickle’s Tale

The economic journey of a humble German vegetable, from the Berlin Wall to TTIP

Different brands of pickles are displayed at a Walmart store in Secaucus, New Jersey
Different brands of pickles on display at a Walmart store in Secaucus, New Jersey (Lucas Jackson / Reuters)

Globalization has brought foods from around the world to grocery stores near you. And in some cases, it’s also brought contentious food politics. For instance in Germany, the land of pilsners and bratwurst, on this issue consider the gherkin—the pickle, depending on which side of the Atlantic you call home.

Gherkins, in their sweet and sour briny goodness, have been lauded in the German imagination from poetry to popular culture. In the 2003 film Good Bye, Lenin!, the protagonist’s mother requests one almost immediately on waking from a coma. Germany is the top consumer and producer of pickled products in Europe, a place where it’s clear that not all pickles are created the same. And in fact one particular kind of German pickle encapsulates the tension between globalization and regional identity that Europe must negotiate as its leaders consider a set of massive international trade deals.

Spreewald gherkins are a kind of pickle for which the origin of the cucumber matters as much as the blend of dill, onions, herbs, and spices in the brine. The Spreewald is a biosphere reserve about 60 miles southeast of Berlin. It is where the river Spree diverges into hundreds of channels, the land is loamy, and the soil is rich with certain minerals. The terrain was carved by ancient glaciers, and the resulting wetlands have made the Spreewald and the surrounding state of Brandenburg the “vegetable garden of Berlin.

Since Slavic people settled in the region in the seventh and eighth centuries, gherkins have been cultivated in the Spreewald. But it was Dutch immigrants at the turn of the 17th century that made picking, peeling, and pickling cucumbers into a community-wide business. These days locals and tourists alike celebrate the gherkin’s heritage at the annual Spreewälder Gurkentag, or Spreewald Gherkin Festival. From the reenactments of the traditional pickling process to the gherkin wares and gherkin beer for sale, in the Spreewald the pickle reigns. Indeed, as if to prove that point, a gherkin king and queen are crowned at the fair.

At this year’s Gurkentag in late August, Melanie Kossatz, the managing director of a regional development group called Spreewaldverein, pointed out the special blue and yellow circle on the jars of pickles with pride—it is the European Union seal of approval, certifying the product’s “Protected Geographical Indication” or PGI. The labels signal that the products bearing them have met strict qualifications. For Spreewald gherkins they mean that the majority of cucumbers in the jar were actually grown and pickled in the Spreewald, using traditional recipes, and not, say, flown in from Turkey or the Netherlands. The certifications are, in addition to being a reassurance to locavores, a tool forged by the EU for rural economic development and keeping cultural traditions alive.

Thus the French have their Roquefort, the English their Cornish Pasty, and the Italians their Parmigiano Reggiano. In 2007, the value of goods with Geographical Indications is 14.2 billion euros—not including wine, spirits, and beer. In Germany, the sales value of such products has only steadily increased since the first Nuremberg gingerbread and Lübeck marzipan received PGI seals in 1996.

As for Spreewald gherkins, they are not just any German pickles: They are East German pickles. From the period after World War II until German reunification in 1990, they were a product of the German Democratic Republic (the GDR, or DDR, in its German abbreviation) produced by a Volkseigener Betrieb, or a People’s Enterprise state-run company. The only Spreewald gherkins were the ones pickled and canned at the VEB Spreewaldkonserve.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, the currency switch from the East German mark to the formerly West German deutsche mark, and the subsequent years of privatization brought challenges as well as opportunities for industries in Eastern Germany. “No one wanted to eat eastern products,” said Sören Moretz, the collections manager at the DDR Museum in Berlin. “Why eat Nudossi,” a hazelnut spread produced in the former East Germany, “when you can buy Nutella?”

Many German companies did not survive the free-market frenzy. The DDR Museum is filled with some 200,000 objects that were produced in East Germany and are no longer made today. Some companies like the VEB Sachsenring Automobilwerke Zwickau, which produced the East German Trabant car, were years behind technologically and could not keep up with changing customer demand.

What happened to the Spreewald gherkin was peculiar, though. It was one of very few East German products that never quite disappeared from the market after reunification—which is not to say that they did not come close. In a 2006 case study researchers at the Institute for International and European Environmental Policy found that after reunification, West German companies started using “Spreewald” as a label on their pickles, capitalizing on the history and prestige associated with it, and consequently dipping into the revenue that might otherwise have gone to actual Spreewald gherkin producers.

In any case, the amount of land used for cucumber cultivation at first dropped precipitously after German reunification, according to data from the Spreewaldverein. That trend reversed when “Spreewald” became a certified national trademark in 1995. But Kossatz thinks that real gains, and real protection, came when the “Spreewälder Gurken” was recognized by the EU in 1999 and given Protected Geographical Indication. Today Spreewald gherkins are in supermarkets all across Germany. The Institute for International and European Environmental Policy estimates that Spreewald gherkins make up 50 percent of the domestic pickle market.

But this humble pickle that survived so many economic convulsions is again facing an uncertain future as Germans debate various free-trade deals, including one between the EU and the U.S. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP as it is known colloquially, would be the biggest bilateral trade deal in history if passed. Although Germany is the third-largest exporter in the world, thousands of its citizens have protested or otherwise tried to stop TTIP, which seeks to “eliminate all tariffs and other duties and charges on trade in agriculture, industrial and consumer products between the United States and Europe.”

The U.S. and the EU have been negotiating TTIP since 2013, but in the meantime free trade has become the subject of more-heated debate on both sides of the Atlantic. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump brought the issue to the forefront of the U.S. presidential election; in late August, Germany’s Vice-Chancellor and Minister for Economic Affairs Sigmar Gabriel said that TTIP negotiations had essentially failed. The 15th round of negotiations for that agreement are occurring this week, though in an informal meeting in late September European trade ministers expressed doubt that TTIP could be passed by the end of President Obama’s term.

As for what all this has to do with a pickle, one of the sticking points in the negotiations has been the very premise of the kind of geographic indicator that has helped promote the Spreewald gherkin. In Europe, for example, “Feta” only comes from sheep and goats milk from Greece. In the United States much of the feta in the grocery store probably comes from a cow in Wisconsin. If an agreement results in “harmonizing standards”—that is, applying the same rules in both Europe and the United States on things like factory farming, genetically modified food, and, yes, geographic indicators—whose rules apply? Will American shoppers get what Germans would consider counterfeit Spreewald gherkins grown and pickled in, say, Michigan?

Gregor, one of the 70,000 people marching in Berlin in protest of TTIP and similar deals on a recent Saturday, described the fear: “The [EU protection] will disappear most likely. Everything will be evened out one day. Local specialties [are a] national concept, not a global concept.”

If TTIP were to “harmonize standards,” the EU wants geographical indicators to protect more European goods exported to the United States. This is one reason that, back in the Spreewald, Kossatz said that those in the gherkin business were initially concerned by the implications of TTIP, but more have warmed up to the idea as negotiations continue. Who is to say that jars of Spreewälder Gurken, blue-yellow seal and all, could not end up in supermarkets across America one day?