With a bit of good press, healthy foods catapult into our diets out of indigenous obscurity to become mealtime staples. But lurking behind a generous nutritional profile isn’t always the fairy tale farm-to-table story you might have imagined.
From violent drug cartels to disastrous environmental decline, beneficial to our diets though they may be, a number of plant-based whole foods have caused some not-so-healthy implications to the communities who produce and export them. Here, we take a look at a few of the culprits.
Having emerged from unpronounceable beginnings (no judgement, quin-o-a offenders) to supermarket and store cupboard stalwart, this low-fat, high-protein grain first journeyed into the northern hemisphere with an extremely positive effect to the Peruvian and Bolivian farmers who harvest it.
But its demand has come with steep price hikes, which has meant the very communities who first reaped the rewards have now been priced out of their own commodity.
With the UK continuing to keenly guzzle down quinoa as an alternative to rice, millet, couscous et al, the price rise percentage in Peru has escalated in its hundreds, forcing those who have incorporated it into their diets for over 700 years to instead opt for cheaper, imported junk food.
Further trouble comes from the fact that, of the approximate 3,000 varieties of quinoa, export demand focusses on just a fraction of this number, which has prompted farmers to abandon the varieties which will prove vital to climate change-proofing the crop.
Rather than opt for South America-grown quinoa, why not check out the increasingly thriving British grown options such as The British Quinoa Company. Its variety is bred to thrive in a more temperate climate, where they can grow and mature at their own pace during our summer months.
We consume around 19,800 tonnes of cashews in the UK every year. But though rich in minerals, fibre, unsaturated fat and protein, and with plenty of health benefits to boot, the conditions they were processed in are far less favourable.
The charity Traidcraft Exchange has brought to light particularly poor labour conditions in India, whereby cardol and anacardic acid-filled cashew nut liquid causes burns and lesions on the workers who shell by hand.
In spite of base code rules by the Ethical Trading Initiative, producers of cashew nuts are under too much price pressure to implement the required levels of hygiene, child labour and living wage rules.
In Vietnam, conditions are worse still, shelled by those detained in approximately 120 drug rehabilitation camps across the country. Here, physical abuse from truncheons and cattle prods is common; so bad was the situation in 2011 that the term “Blood Cashews” was coined by the media off the back of a damning report by Human Rights Watch.
Only limited efforts are reported to have been made to improve the industry in the years that have followed. As a step in the right direction, seek organic and fairtrade certification next time you shop.
The world’s appetite for avocados knows no bounds. So coveted is the fibrous, nutrient-dense and heart-healthy fruit that in Mexico, they’re colloquially referred to as “green gold”.
But in the state of Michoaćan – where Mexican production is centred – the income potential for avocados has resulted in drug cartel involvement in their trade, forcing farmers to give up a percentage of their income to pay extortionate taxes. For anyone who resists, the consequences have proven fatal.
The storied history of avocado-related conflict in areas such as Michoaćan features action of Tarantino proportions, and growers here now estimate an annual spend exceeding $1 million on a new security force to compensate for the inadequacies of the authorities.
But the problem with avocados is not endemic only to cartel warfare on Mexico’s west coast. Venture north of the border and the reliance on water for avocado production in Calfornia – where over 80% of US avocados are grown – is a large contributor to the state’s worsening drought.
If there’s one thing Californians grow more of than avocados, it’s almonds – a staggering 82% of the world’s supply, in fact, making it the state’s second-largest commodity after milk.
Put on a dietary pedestal for their cholesterol-lowering, heart-healthy credentials, as with avocados, almonds are an unfortunate contributor to the Golden State’s intensifying drought. An estimated gallon of water is used to produce a single almond, making them one of the thirstiest crops grown and drawing on approximately an eighth of the entire state’s water supply.
Slightly closer to home, Sicilian almonds could provide a more suitable alternative to British consumers. But that’s not to say California isn’t making efforts to change its ways, with advances in irrigation technology recently having lowered water need by a third according to the Almond Board of California. Growers also point out that they are still far more efficient than beef or dairy.
Commonly perceived as a more eco-friendly endeavour than meat and dairy farming, soybeans have long provided hefty doses of protein to vegetarians and vegans. But soy products require huge quantities of land to grow, making them a major contributor to the deforestation of ecosystems across Latin America.
The Amazon, Gran Chaco and Atlantic forests have all been compromised by soy production, and in the last 11 years, the Stockholm Environment Institute has reported over 17,000 square kilometres of Brazil’s Cerrado biome to have been cleared for production.
But before writing off soy as completely environmentally disruptive, it’s worth noting that only 6% is eaten directly by humans. The vast majority is fed to livestock, which further goes to cement omnivorous diets’ responsibility for deforestation. Moreover, initiatives such as 2016’s soy moratorium stipulate regulations to soy grown on recently deforested land and blacklists for non-compliant farmers, lessening soy’s impact on these ecosystems and global warming.
Form recognises the great privilege we have to be thinking about our diet and nutrition – a luxury not afforded to everyone. We want to impact society in a way that’s bigger than the products we provide, which is why with every purchase you make, you’ll provide a meal via our Form Feeding Fund at Bansang Hospital in The Gambia. Click here to learn more about the charity.