With a plant-based January promising to undo the sins of another year, we could easily fall victim to the notion that all non-animal foods are good for us. Some, however, could have repercussions for the natural world that outweigh any benefit. The problem we find, with all mass shifts, is that there are simply too many of us seeking the same ‘miracle’ foods for things to remain in balance. And some miracles are worse than others.
One of the most heavily-consumed superfoods, avocado, is having a devastating effect on its countries of origin. In Mexico’s Michoacán mountains, the planting of avocado trees is drinking more of the country’s water than the equivalent area of dense forest. Coupled with reduced carbon dioxide sequestration from loss of native forest trees, the land has been stripped of both its water and its natural defence against environmental damage.
Eco-politics aside, intensive harvesting to meet the insatiable demand of Western diets has led to grave socio-economic issues in the countries where the avocado grows. In Mexico, particularly, the crop is no longer controlled by the farmer. Drug Cartels have their hands in the lucrative export trade, leading to violence and even murder, to pander to the appetites of clean-living Westerners. Locals who once relied on the fruit as a vital source of nutrition can no longer afford to eat it — foreign demand has driven the price up so high. So, all things considered, avocado could very well be one of the worst things we could eat.
The switch from cow’s milk to plant milk alternatives isn’t without its complications. In California, where the majority of the world’s almonds are grown, so heavy is the burden on the area’s water supply that the already drought-ridden state has to drill down into underground aquifers, damaging both natural and manmade infrastructure — at risk, even, of triggering earthquakes. The land is subsiding in the almond fields of California, at a rate of around 11 inches a year as a result. And, since it takes up to five litres of water to grow a single almond, the prognosis for the land if we can’t curb our ever-increasing consumption appears grim.
Almond farming has also decimated honeybee populations in recent years, because of pesticide use in the groves where millions of hives are artificially situated to pollinate the trees.
In 2018, pineapple superseded avocado as the fastest-selling fruit in the UK. Once considered a ‘luxury fruit’, pineapples are now shipped worldwide in their billions, and this is placing an enormous environmental burden on one of its biggest producers: Costa Rica.
The country was once rainforest, but demand for tropical crops, particularly the recent pineapple boom, have necessitated the uptake of monoculture farming practices and heavy use of agrochemicals. Vast swathes of ancient forest have been cleared to make way for farms, and what remains is polluted by pesticides used to grow fruits for export. Heavy tropical rains carry pollutants into the water supply, and now over six thousand people in Atlantic Coast communities have to receive their water by government delivery — so great is the danger posed by drinking the local water.
The human impact is also very real. Costa Rica relies on a largely migrant workforce, many coming from nearby Nicaragua — without papers. Workers report exploitation, discrimination and, in the case of the minority female workforce, sexual harassment.
Though 2014 reports of Andean natives struggling to afford their staple food source have been deemed exaggerated, quinoa’s popularity has led to intensive farming practices in Peru and Bolivia. With a rise in global demand for the much-lauded super grain, farmers have begun sowing monoculture fields of quinoa in places that would have otherwise been reserved for nature — diminishing soil fertility and discouraging wildlife. The plains around the salt flats of the Bolivian southern altiplano were once covered in natural vegetation, grazed by llamas. Now they are being transformed into deserts by intensive quinoa cultivation. As with all singular farming methods, a healthy soil cannot sustain itself without diversity, to feed its biota. So it inevitably becomes barren.
Latin America, and now Africa, produce the majority of the world’s bananas, in monoculture plantations, growing almost exclusively one variety. Because of this, the banana trees are more susceptible to pests and disease, and ever-increasing doses of pesticides are being used to control them. Like Mexico, Costa Rica and all other key producers of mass-exported foods, these lands — and their water sources — are heavily polluted. Plantation workers are routinely exposed to toxic chemicals and their rights often neglected. Soils are eroded, putting communities at risk from flooding, and increasingly infertile. And so the cycle of chemical use continues.
It’s a shift in the perception of foods as a commodity which could probably do to change. Qualifying any living thing as a product, rather than respecting its natural growth cycles and yield, takes us further away from eating healthfully, naturally and sustainably, day by day.