The Rising Cost of Superfoods (to the Planet)

She feeds you goji berries that come all the way from China, to paraphrase ‘Suzanne’. But it would be better for you and the planet to eat carrots, writes Daniel Jardim

 
THE superfood industry has us eating more exotic foods from far-flung corners of the globe than ever before. They promise superior nutrition, but do the environmental and social implications make these foods less wholesome than they seem? The challenge with “miracle foods” stems primarily from the fact that a sudden spike in demand can outstrip supply. When marketeers hit the jackpot with the “next big thing” the feeding frenzy creates a rush to cash in while the going is good. The speed with which this happens can leave a trail of destruction, especially in developing countries. Peruvian farmers are feeling the brunt of the quinoa boom which saw this high-protein grain catapulted to culinary super-stardom. Quinoa was once grown as a companion plant to feed local communities, but traditional methods have been abandoned in favour of aggressive farming techniques just to keep up with demand. The rapid shift has come at a high price with a sharp decline in soil quality and biodiversity. And while there may have been a temporary boost to the local economy, competition from the US and Asia to produce cheaper quinoa may leave these farmers worse off than before.

It might make sense to spread production of these foods across the planet, but growing superfoods outside of their natural environment can bring its own challenges. Almonds are not native to California, and yet the US state is responsible for more than 80% of global production. Great swathes of land are being cleared to plant even more trees. But they are also a thirsty crop which need continual watering. There is growing concern over the long-term impact on water reserves, especially as the state recovers from the worst drought in recent history. Moreover, because the trees are not in their native environment, they are also not pollinated without intervention. Millions of honeybees are transported to California annually to ensure that the almond trees continue to bear fruit. Rising pesticide use to secure greater yields means that year on year fewer bees survive. Neither of these factors is likely to improve as long as we maintain our voracious appetite for these nuts. And what about the food miles? More than 800 tonnes of food is transported around the globe annually and that constitutes a huge chunk of greenhouse gas emissions. Surely we need to be mindful of how far these superfoods travel before they land in our shopping baskets — goji berries from China, almond milk from the US, and lucuma powder from Peru. There are initiatives that plant trees to offset carbon emissions, but you might need to plant a small forest in your backyard to offset the food miles totted up from making those mega-smoothies. It is far more practical to simply eat less of those foods that carry such a hefty environmental price tag.

The biggest disservice may be to those who just want to eat better food. Often nutritional data about these foods is cherrypicked to make them seem essential, with the result that we eat more exotic-sounding foods to the exclusion of locally grown ingredients which are just as good. Their only crime is that they don’t boast a flashy superfood label. Gram for gram there is twice the beta-carotene in a good ol’ carrot than in goji berries. Locally farmed macadamia nuts contain higher amounts of heart-healthy monounsaturated fat than almonds. Exotic does not necessarily mean better. You may think that pink Himalayan salt is superior because it is sourced from pristine mountain tops (it’s not, it’s mined intensively in Pakistan), but ethically produced local sea salt is ideal for cooking. The message is clear — learn more about the goodness in those seasonal and locally grown foods, and eat them regularly. It is the surest way of nourishing your body whilst simultaneously taking care of the planet.

This article originally appeared in the March 25 2017 Sunday Times newspaper

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