What's The Real Human Cost Of Your #CleanEating Obsession?
The Debrief: From avocado cartels terrorising Mexico to Cowspiracy levels of environmental damage from almonds, is the rest of the world suffering in your endeavour to be healthy?
Martin Luther King once said, ‘Before the time you’ve finished breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world.’ Whether you’re lucky if you down a Red Bull (no judgement there) or you’re one of those Martha Stewart types who rustles up a two-course, poached-egg-acai-granola-bowl bonanza, the head count on your food production is a lot more than just you and whoever does the washing up.
We live in a time where we don’t have health trends anymore: health itself is now a trend. And, on the way on our quest to wellness, alongside all the squats and mindfulness, came the superfoods. Even the most hedonistic, hardened burger-munchers among us at some point have probably caved to a piece of avocado toast or an almond-milk latte at some point (even if it was just for the Instagram snap).
Thing is, when a new so-called superfood makes itself known, we can all go a little overboard. Almonds have Vitamin E? Let’s drink them! Avocados are packed essential fatty acids? Let’s bake brownies with them! But, just like fast fashion, there’s a hidden human cost to these foods. Geoff Tansey, writer and curator of Food Systems Academy, a website dedicated to educating people about sustainable food, told us, ’The production side of food is quite hidden and consumers are encouraged not to think about it. You have to ask yourself, who’s making the money here?’
It’s easy to look at the ingredients we snap up in the supermarket just as an end product - and why wouldn’t you, when most of us would be hard-pressed to explain exactly how you milk an almond? But the foods that become fads in Western culture often carry consequences that are only felt further afield, whether that’s socially or environmentally. As Barbara Crowther, Director of Policy at FairTrade put it, ‘While it will initially be good news if people have been struggling to sell (a particular crop), it can also send a false signal. Companies will go hunting for new sources, strike deals, then the trend dies down or a cheaper source comes up. By this point, the farmers have grown it, gotten a big order one year and then there’s a crash. But then they’ve already converted their land from growing one crop to to this other, new food.’
The three biggest culprits have to be avocados, quinoa and almond milk, which now even good old M&S are selling. Let’s put those three under a lens and see where the damage is really being felt. Other than in your wallet. We’ve seen fancy cafes charge a fiver for a bit of avo toast.
These nutrient-packed powerhouses are probably one of the healthiest foods you can eat, there’s no denying. But, believe it or not, ‘blood avocados’ have become a thing. A chilling report by Vocativ last year revealed there are Narcos-style deals being cut between Mexican avocado farmers and local cartels. Because of their new popularity (people used to think they were too fatty), the value of a harvest is so great that the ‘Caballeros Templarios' cartel in Mexico demand a slice of the profits from local farmers, and make them pay protection. In fact, in the Mexican state of Michoacán, which is prime avo territory, avocados are now a more valuable export than weed. The cartel, who are referred to as ‘los malos’ (The ‘Bad Guys’) by the locals are terrifyingly powerful. If you want to steer clear, check the label closely when you’re buying avocados, and try and find avocados that come from other parts of the world, like Greece, Morocco and Spain.
For people who find they can’t get on with dairy products, almond milk is the stuff of dreams. It’s delicious in coffee and porridge and has zero lactose. But - uh-oh - it’s pretty terrible for the environment. As Rob Lillywhite, Senior Research Fellow at The University of Warwick told us, ‘Personally, I think it’s an awful product that’s devastated the environment.’ For the uninitiated, almonds are a very thirsty crop. It’s been estimated that it takes about a gallon of water to grow one almond, so you can imagine how much water is needed to generate one carton of almond milk. The problem is that California dominates the market, with almost 80% of almonds on the market hailing from Cali. But, while the conditions are good for almond-growing in that it’s very sunny, California doesn’t really have much rain. At all. ‘This is where irrigation comes in’, explained Rob ‘Irrigation is essentially supplementing natural water supply in an area where they haven’t had enough rainfall. So that can be taking ground water, or just taking water from another area. But it can also mean taking water from one cause to another, and in this case, taking water from society to industry. And now, California in the grips of devastating, serious drought.’ Not only that, but as Richard Young, Policy Director at the Sustainable Food Trust told us, ‘California has no natural habitat for bees, which are needed for pollination, so they have to import 3/4 of all the bees in north America to California, at a considerable environmental cost.’
Richard explained, ‘If you’re worried about the methane emissions, you’ll do more good to the planet by having organic cows’ milk rather than almond milk. If you avoid dairy for health reasons, oats are pretty disease to resistant, thrive in soggy conditions like the UK and don't need much fertiliser, making oat milk a good choice.’
If you want almonds for snacking, there’s a FairTrade-endorsed brand called Zaytoun. These farmers in Palestine have managed to cross-breed an almond tree with another drought-resistant tree, to create yummy, massive, non-irrigated almonds, which you can buy here.
Quinoa has become a byword for ‘healthy’, and we’ve completely lost count of all the ways you can consume it, both by eating it, and in beauty products (quinoa conditioner is a thing, people.) But, before we all discovered it, the people of Bolivia were merrily eating it for about seven centuries. And now that it’s so valuable, well, they can’t afford it. What they can afford is poor-quality junk food. As the Food Ethics Council outlined in their 2010 ‘Food Justice’ report, ‘The majority of the world’s hungry live in poor countries and these countries face a double-burden of diet-related disease as the prevalence of overweight and obesity increases.There are already more obese people in poor and newly industrialised countries than there are in rich, Western countries.’
In fact, The Telegraph reported that ‘As export trades have grown (by 26 per cent between 2011 and 2012) and foreign costs soared (by 44 per cent in the UK alone), domestic prices [of quinoa] have shot up.’ If you want ethical quinoa, FairTrade work with a company called Quinola, who source their quinoa from Peru, and are investing in the local area. They even built a de-husking plant, which allows the local people to process the quinoa and sell it for a better price. Also, it’s worth mentioning that rice and beans has all the same amino acids as quinoa, and is a lot cheaper, FYI.
The upshot? There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make healthier choices, and there’s definitely nothing wrong with wanting to try new foods. In fact, Barbara Crowther noted ‘If we’re careful about how we purchase, we can not only avoid the bad consequences of unfair farming, but we can actually support farmers and their livelihoods.’ When the next super berry-grain-nut lands in your lap, take the time to do some research about where it’s come from and see if you can find a ethically certified version. And maybe go easy on the almond milk. That stuff really doesn’t taste so sweet anymore.
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