The food we consume is often dictated by trends (anyone with any sort of recollection of the 1970’s, will likely have fond memories of prawn salad’s followed by a nice portion of trifle). But these days, consumerism has become a global problem and rarely are the foods we eat en masse homegrown, so it stands to reason that the impact of increased demand for certain foods is felt across the world.
As food trends go, healthy food is currently having a pretty good run. Nutritious foods such as avocados, quinoa and almond milk have seen huge increases in production over the last few years, but as the demand for these newly popular foods soars, what impact are they really having on the environment?
Avocados are nutrient-rich and bursting with vitamins and research also suggests that the natural fats in avocados can help protect against heart disease and lower blood pressure. These health benefits and the advent of social media has meant that the avocado has become one of the biggest players in the superfood market the world over. The USA imported almost 2 million tonnes of avocado in 2017… that’s six times as many as in 2001! As a planet, we now produce and consume twice as many avocados as we did back then, with 40% of the worlds avocados coming from Mexico.
Avocados are known to be water hungry, using 370 litres of water just to produce 500g of avocado… that’s nearly 8 times the amount of water required to grow the same amount of tomatoes! This is having detrimental effects on the drought-stricken areas such as Mexico and California where the majority are grown. Water isn’t the only problem for those in Mexico either, much of the farm land is now controlled by drug cartels due to the increased demand, forcing farmers to hand over a percentage of their earnings and murdering those that refuse.
Known as Peruvian Gold, quinoa has become a firm favourite on many restaurant menu’s in recent years. Gluten-free and high in fibre, it certainly has its place in a healthy balanced diet. Together, Peru and Bolivia produce approximately 95% of the world’s quinoa and traditionally, it would be a large part of their staple diet. However, due to the increase in demand and the rising prices (tripling since 2006), they’re now forfeiting this healthy, nutritious food in favour of cheaper, processed products.
The increasing prices and demand has also meant that smaller, local farmers who’s families have been growing quinoa for centuries, have been pushed out of the market to make way for mass producing corporate companies. But just how much of an increase are we talking? In 2001, 46 tonnes of quinoa was produced globally, today this figure has risen to 149 tonnes… that’s three times the amount in less than 20 years!
Soya has played a huge part in vegetarian and vegan foods for a while. Due to being high in protein and a good source of fibre, it continues to be a favourite and is used to produce meat and dairy alternatives. That said, it’s not actually veggie cuisine that’s causing the problem, it’s our lust for cheaper meat that is fueling the real growth. 347 million tonnes of soya was produced in 2017, 90% of which went into animal feed production.
Unfortunately due to this increase, it means the South American rainforests are suffering huge losses to meet demand; The USDA estimates that total amount of Brazilian rainforest that will be devoted to cultivating soya beans is likely to reach 30 million hectares by 2020. That’s an area the same size as the Philippines. Let that sink in for just a moment. It’s not just South America that’s suffering either. Globally, 300 million hectares of tropical rainforest has been lost to soy plantations over the last two decades, these vast monocultures are usually heavily sprayed with pesticide, kill biodiversity and contribute heavily to soil erosion.
Though avocados, quinoa and soya bean production are the biggest culprits for destruction and devastation of the planets resources and those that rely on them, there are also a number of other foods that heavily contribute to this including: bananas, coconuts, dark chocolate, peanut butter and almonds.
Bananas – as well as the huge amount of pesticides used to produce bananas, ethylene gas is also used to artificially ripen them as they’re shipped around the world. This and the considerable distances they travel all adds to a rather sizable carbon footprint.
Coconuts – Mainly farmed in Indonesia, the Philippines and India have also begun to clear mangrove forests to pick up on the demand for coconut-based products. This however has had a knock-on effect, causing issues with coastal erosion which in turn can have devastating results during typhoons and tsunamis.
Dark Chocolate – The cocoa industry has widely been criticised for being one the biggest employers of children, with an estimated 2 million working for less than $1 a day. It’s also been blamed for the huge deforestation in Africa with 80% of Ghana’s rainforest cleared since 1960, add to this the massive carbon footprint; estimate to be the equivalent of driving a car 4.9 miles per 200g bar.
Peanut Butter – Though it’s not the peanuts that are at fault here, the increased popularity means that more palm oil is being used than ever before. A primary ingredient in many peanut butters, cosmetic and other food products, palm oil is derived from the African Oil Palm Tree. This is lucrative business and it’s estimated that 300 football fields of rainforest are cleared every hour to make way for new palm trees, threatening local species such as orangutans who, at this rate, could be extinct within 5 years.
Almonds – It’s a worrying fact that almonds are second only to beef cattle when it comes to water consumption… In fact, almonds require more water to grow than sheep, goats, pigs and chickens! They’re also primarily grown in southern California which is known for it’s dry climate, almond crops have quadrupled over the last 30 years which isn’t great news for the drought hit state.