Yesterday in Bangkok, I feasted on a breakfast almost too beautiful to eat: a smoothie blended with the exquisite magenta-coloured Pitaya or ‘Dragon Fruit’. Dubbed as the new ‘superfood’, it is a goldmine of nutrients: high in vitamins B & C, rich in antioxidants, protein, and carotene to name a few. I had of course sampled this colourful delight in London, but in its frozen pre-packed form whizzed up in a smoothie bowl to mask the fact that it was essentially tasteless.
The realisation of the amount of food miles that those pieces of Pitaya had travelled to my smoothie bowl, made me reflect on the colossal environmental, economic and cultural impact of our ‘superfood’ craze.
‘Food Miles’ can be defined as the distance a food has travelled from its point of origin to our kitchens. Did you realise that 95% of the fruit and 50% of the vegetables we consume in the UK is actually imported? In addition to the reduction in CO2 emissions from the air, sea and land transportation of these foods, studies have shown that it would be more financially beneficial for UK consumers to buy food locally (it’s estimated that buying food originating from within a 20km radius would save over £2 billion in fuel and environmental costs per year).
And it's not just mileage that is of grave concern, but also the huge drain on resources required to produce foods like avocados and almonds. The cultivation of avocados is draining the US state of California dry – it takes a whopping 72 gallons of water to grow a pound of avocados, and a terrifying 1-gallon of water to produce 1 almond…
The 'super-grain' quinoa exemplifies how intense demand for a certain product can cause economic destruction in its country of origin. In Peru and Bolivia, the rise in prices has forced quinoa farmers out of their own market place. According to the Telegraph, since export trades have grown (by 26% between 2011 and 2012) and foreign prices soared (by 44% in the UK alone), domestic prices have also shot up. It's also have a tragic affect on local food culture - people who have eaten quinoa as a staple for seven hundred years are forced to resort to the cheaper option of imported junk food.
Potassium & electrolyte-packed coconut water, for example, has been coined as the ultimate post-workout replenishment; yet one never stops to consider how the mass plantation and consequent upset of biodiversity, as well as the unjust treatment of the farmers themselves, is a direct result of our demands. According to Fair Trade USA, the average coconut farmer receives around $0.12 - $0.25 per coconut and earns anything between $72 - $7,000 per year - yet Vita Coco Coconut water retails in the UK's Planet Organic healthfoods store for £4.95.
But with so many farmers globally now reliant on exporting their produce to meet these demands, what is the solution?
Ultimately it’s unrealistic for us to abandon our ‘superfood’ demands overnight, but little by little we can reduce the quantity we consume and be more mindful of our purchasing habits. We can make an effort to buy fair trade, organic and ethically sourced produce where possible, and shop at supermarkets that are conscious of the impact their business has on the global food and farming industry. For example, the UK supermarket Waitrose’s Foundation Kenya covers the supply of vegetables as well as flowers to the UK. As well as sponsoring large farms and smallholders, the organisation also supports the implementation of a number of projects from equipping training centres with computers and books, to providing solar lighting panels to village communities who would otherwise have to resort to hazardous kerosene lanterns.
We can also explore other foods produced by our own nations. In the UK, bananas and coconut water could be substituted by locally grown potassium-rich foods like leafy greens (spinach, broccoli, kale, cabbage), sweet potato, mushrooms and eggs. Chestnuts, hazelnuts and walnuts can be eaten instead of vast amounts of almonds. During the autumn and winter months a daily avocado can be replaced with numerous root vegetables such as squash, marrow and pumpkin that are all bursting with antioxidants and essential vitamins and minerals. And quinoa can be replaced with protein-packed pulses such as lentils and beans. Even brussel sprouts have more vitamin C than oranges!
Above all, be mindful of where your food has come from and enjoy embracing the abundant delicious and nourishing possibilities of fresh, local, seasonal produce. #CookFirst