You’re trying to do your bit. Maybe you’ve cut down on your meat intake. You opt for organic when you can afford it, or you chose a Fairtrade coffee brand. You fill your kitchen with products that kinder on the planet. Sure, you’re aware there are some items in your grocery bags that come with some serious food miles (a quick check might reveal your chia seeds are from South America, your goji berries are from China and your coconut oil is from Indonesia), but on the whole, that’s pretty good going, right?
Well, every effort is a step in the right direction, but sadly, although food miles with imported superfoods are indeed an issue (eating a diet loaded with such foods uses up to four times the energy and subsequently produces four times the emissions of an equivalent domestic diet), the greater problem lies in exactly what it takes to mass-produce these items.
There are issues with some of our favourite “superfoods” – the demand for quinoa has affected how available it is to the locals for South Americans for whom it has been a staple for centuries, and growing interest in teff, a staple grain in Ethiopia mainly used to make injera, may be in danger of following a similar path, with controversy over Dutch companies owning a patent relating to the grain, and Ethiopians facing rising prices. Even the ubiquitous avocado, surprisingly, has issues.
But there are things you can do to lighten the impact on the people who produce them, and the planet.
Nutrient-dense and gluten-free, this ancient grain from the Bolivian Andes has experienced a global boom in recent years, which has seen prices paid to local farms increase from around $US500 metric tonne in the mid-noughties (the standard price farmers were paid for decades) to well over $US1300 by 2010. It sounds good in theory, but locals keen to cash in on the grain’s popularity soon did away with centuries-old traditional methods where quinoa was grown alongside llamas and alpaca (rotation of polycultural crops and the animals’ manure helped prevent erosion of soil and restored the earth’s fertility), selling off their herds and replacing them with tractors which has seen them mine their soil year-round to meet ever-increasing demand.
Not only has soil fertility decreased, making quinoa that much more difficult – and expensive – to grow, many locals who rely on it for export can no longer afford to buy the now-unaffordable grains themselves, a fact that has pushed the region into one of the most malnourished in Bolivia.
What you can do: Happily, a team of researchers at King Abudullah University in Saudi Arabia say they’ve mapped the genome of quinoa, which will not only make the grain easier to process on a global scale, but have a price tag comparable to wheat.
In the meantime you can keep things local by purchasing Australian quinoa. Similarly, for those interested in teff, expect a local crop to become more available.
When the ‘smashed avo’ trend went global, the only people who celebrated harder than the farmers of Michoacán, a hot, mountainous state in Mexico which is known as the only place on the planet where the fruit can be grown all year round, was the local drug cartel who viewed the profitable industry as easy money.
By 2013, what had formerly been affectionately called ‘green gold’ by locals had become ‘blood avocados’. The cartel demanded a fee for every box of fruit gathered, they took cuts from fertiliser and pesticide sales, forced farmers to sign title deeds of their farms over to them, and allegedly attached or killed some of those who were unable – or unwilling – to pay ransoms.
It’s a big issue for avocado lovers in the US, where about 60 per cent of the avocados consumed are from Mexico (Australia does not import avocados from Mexico).
This is not the only problem affecting the world’s avocado industry; the fruit requires plenty of irrigation water which puts pressure on local water reserves (it takes approximately 100 litres to grow just one avocado and countries such as Chile, Mexico and parts of California have begun to experience unprecedented droughts).
What you can do: Avocados Australia tell SBS Food that all avocados sold within Australia are either locally grown or imported from New Zealand, so that’d good news for local avocado fans. However, we still need to consider environmental impact and sustainability, says Dr Jessica Loyer, a food values researcher at the University of Adelaide. “To do your part, either reduce your intake of avocados, or stay mindful of eating fruits and vegetables only when they are in season,” she says.
On a larger scale, some state governments are currently looking at ways to ease the pressure for avocado growers, with the Western Australian government investigating an irrigation scheme for the Manjimup and Pemberton areas which officials hope will help curtail negative environmental impacts.
Whether you’re cooking with coconut oil, or drinking its juice by the bucket-load, it’s hard to ignore the fact that coconut products are everywhere right now. In fact, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, global coconut production now stands at 62 million tonnes a year.
Although expert opinion is divided on just how healthy coconuts really are, perhaps less palatable is the fact that a chunk of the industry rides on the backs of pig-tailed macaque monkeys who, with their climbing ability and agility, are capable of harvesting up to 1600 coconuts a day – far more than any human.
A popular coconut harvesting method in Thailand, and also sometimes used in other South East Asian countries such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Malaysia, the monkeys are efficient, but there have been allegations of mistreatment, including monkeys being made to work all day, every day, and beatings for those who fail to perform.
What you can do: Alternatives to using macaques to harvest coconuts exist and need to be supported, says Bean Pearson, senior campaign manager for World Animal Protection. “Customers concerned about the animal impact of their favourite coconut products should contact the company to check they engage in ethical business practices,” she says.
Opting for local Australian brands is a start, but no real changes can be made unless everyday people start applying pressure to local governments, says Andrew Chignell, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Cornell University and author of Philosophy Comes to Dinner: Arguments About the Ethics of Eating who also teaches the undergraduate course, ‘The Ethics of Eating’. “We can all work at the local level by trying to set an example and talk up the importance of ethical food behaviours,” says Professor Chignell. “But ultimately, we need governments to get on board and start regulating these industries more vigorously before we see any real change.”
We’re all familiar with the push for ethically produced chocolate – after all, our increasing appetite for all things chocolate has seen significant deforestation in countries such as Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Ghana which produce much of the world’s cocoa. Deforestation aside, cocoa farmers – many earning less than $2 a day – often live well below the poverty line, which encourages them to use child labour to help offset costs and keep their prices competitive.
Cocoa and “superfood” cacao are both derived from cacao beans, further increasing demand.
Aging trees, crop diseases, pests, and extreme weather patterns affecting West Africa has led to swindling supplies – so much so that cocao companies have begun moving production to South America. So far, they have cleared thousands of hectares of Amazon rainforest and industry experts predict they’re only getting started.
What you can do: Efforts are underway to establish new cocoa industries around the world, with the first cocoa pods harvested in Mossman, Queensland in 2002. Although production is still in its infancy in Australia, the industry is predicted to grow considerably over the next decade.
And although there are arguments for continuing to buy products from impoverished countries (“Your answer should come down to what you feel comfortable with,” says Dr Loyer), you have the option of purchasing Fairtrade chocolate such as Green and Black’s, Haighs, Whittakers and some Cadbury brands.
How to eat superfoods ethically
As tempting as it is to give up on all food products and become a breatharian, don’t be disheartened, says Chignell. “There’s a balance here, because perfection is impossible, and striving for perfectly harmless food is just going to demoralise most of us to the point where we give up trying altogether,” he says.
For many people, reducing your intake of animal products is the first step in eating ethically, but taking small steps - doing what you can given your resources, time and education is the right prescription for most of us. “When you can, push in the direction of eating locally if possible,” recommends Professor Chignell. “And when it’s not possible, try to remain open to information that allows us to update what we’ve assumed, or what we’ve been told about what is effective, sustainable or harmful.”
Two recent developments in this field are particularly encouraging. “The first is the increased prominence and availability of ‘veganic’ foods which are not only produced to far more stringent and explicit standards than so-called ‘organic’ foods, and the second is the availability of apps such as ‘Buycott’ that helps consumers to identify where products come from, who ultimately owns the resources involved, who the stakeholders are, what sorts of ethical issues there are with respect to how these products are sourced and generated,” he says, adding that he recommends to app to anyone who is concerned about ethical consumption.
Read books such as James McWilliams’ Just Food as well as The Locavore’s Dilemma by Desrochers and Shimizu and remember that while it might be noble to avoid that jar of coconut oil or bag of quinoa, the most important change comes through regulation at both the corporate and governmental level. “We can all vote with our forks and our dollars but making a choice at the supermarket can’t be the end of it,” says Dr Loyer. “For us to see changes at the very top level, we need to make some noise.”