The rise of ‘clean’ and healthier eating has created a demand for superfoods, which had previously been overlooked for being hard to get hold of or just too pricey. But it’s now ‘sexy’ to be seen with a smashed avocado, drinking coconut water or to be digging into a bowl of quinoa. The high demand for such foods is having a bigger impact on the environment and local communities than they are on our bodies, and its an impact which is awakening the environmentalist in me and one which is helping me to mindfully question where my food is coming from.
This post explores the lesser known, possibly ignored, problems of superfoods and what we can do to reduce the demand on precious global resources
What is a Superfood?
The term ‘superfood’ is used to describe a food which is nutrient dense and has a perceived benefit. The term is frequently used for foods which are derived from far flung places and have included the likes of: goji berries, coconut water, chia seeds, cacao, quinoa, soya beans and avocado. In terms of how they’re marketed, superfoods are unlikely to originate within the UK and will have ‘sexy’ benefits, such as increasing stamina, fertility or might include higher levels of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, than more local foods such as broccoli or spinach.
3 Environmental Problems Created by Our Demand for Superfoods
1) Western Demand Creating Shortages in Local Communities
The insatiable demand for Quinoa within western countries such as the UK, northern America and Europe, has pushed up prices of the grain so much so, that within its native Bolivia, local communities are no longer able to afford it. The grain once formed a staple ingredient within their diet and is now being replaced with cheaper imported junk food. The price of quinoa within its native communities is so high, that it is now more expensive than chicken.
On top of this, local farmers are now opting to ditch growing a variety of crops and are now solely growing quinoa, reducing the diversity in their diet even more. A knock-on effect is that farmers are less willing to rotate their crops, reducing soil fertility and compounding the problem of soil degradation.
This problem of demand outweighing supply and reducing the availability of the item within local communities, as well as increasing soil degradation is also true for superfoods such as: coconuts, cacao and avocados, to name a few.
2) Crops requiring high amounts of water, leading to drought
A number of our favourite superfoods, such as almonds and avocados, require huge amounts of water to ensure that they grow correctly to meet demand.
Farmers are having to satisfy the thirst of their crops through tapping into precious groundwater supplies and nearby rivers. Research suggests that it takes up to a gallon of water to grow a single almond, and up to a million gallons of water per year to grow an acre of avocado trees, it’s little wonder that this is having knock-on impacts on the ecosystems down-stream. For example, in California, which is the US’ leading almond producer, their water intensive crops are not only putting significant pressure on their precious water resources but also on nearby habitats, such as the King Salmon in the Kalmath River.
3) Loss of Natural Habitat through Illegal Deforestation
To ensure that they can meet demand, local communities are increasingly opting to deforest areas of natural forest (more often than not, illegally) to plant more lucrative crops such as coconut and avocado. In the case of Mexican avocados, farmers are thinning out natural pine forests to increase their avocado plantations, replacing natural self-sustaining forests with a crop requiring large quantities of chemicals to keep it healthy. The drive to illegally increase crop size within Mexico, is due to the involvement and pressure applied to farmers by drug cartels, who gain from the high prices paid for a yield of avocado. Where farmers refuse to provide a cut of the profits to the cartels, they face vicious retribution.
How Can We Mindfully Reduce Our Impact?
Although only touched on above, there are a number of environmental and social issues which are developing as a result of our demand for superfoods and which, if left ignored, could have far-reaching consequences on the World’s food and water resources.
It would be unrealistic to believe that if we choose not to buy superfoods, that these problems wouldn’t exist. But I think it’s becoming more important to understand the story behind each item of food that we buy, to know how and where it is being produced. Until recently, I had no idea that my love for avocados could be lining the pockets of prominent drug cartels within Mexico; I also had absolutely no idea that my taste for healthy eating could be causing communities across the world to turn to junk food. This knowledge gained is now allowing me to make more mindful choices in relation to what and how I eat.
More than ever, I’m now going to make a conscious effort to eat more locally produced food, with the help of my vegbox and local markets in town. Through doing so, I hope to reduce the airmiles related to my food and to get to know the people producing what I eat. In addition, I’m also beginning to question my need for exotic superfoods such as coconut, asparagus and avocados, especially when more local nutrient dense ‘super’ foods are available (such as broccoli, spinach and kale).
Tips on How to Eat More Locally and Without Falling into the Superfood Trap
- Read up on your favourite exotic foods and where they’ve come from by a quick search in Google. Are you happy about what you find out?
- To eat more locally, why not subscribe to a vegbox scheme. There are a number of larger companies such as Riverford Organics and Abel & Cole who are great, but if possible, choose a scheme run by a local farm near to you.
- Where possible, choose organic superfoods which are certified by the Soil Association to ensure that you are buying products which adhere to environmental standards.
- When choosing recipe books, have flick through to make sure that most of the ingredients that they require can be obtained from a local market or supermarket, and are ingredients which are produced close to the UK. I particuarly love Deliciously Ella’s Everyday Ella and Amelia Freer’s Cook. Nourish. Glow. which both use easily obtainable foods and with not as much emphasis on superfoods.