Are Superfoods Bad for the Environment?

bowls and spoons full of superfoods, including spirulina and goji berries

It seems like every time you open a food magazine or read a food website these days, people are promoting the latest “superfood.” I’ve learned from these sources that my smoothie just isn’t complete without açai berries or maca, and that day without chia seeds is like a day without sunshine.

Superfoods are very trendy right now. Experts estimate that the global market for “functional food” reached $177 billion in 2013, with a 7% annual growth rate. With so much money at stake, the “superfood” trend has been co-opted to sell everything from broccoli to vitamin supplements.

So, with so much ado about superfoods, just what is a “superfood” anyway?

What is a Superfood?

“Superfood” is nothing more than marketing jargon for fruits, vegetables, or other foods considered better than competing items in providing health benefits ranging from fighting disease or aiding in digestion to promoting brain or heart health.

As you can imagine, there is wide latitude in that definition.

In various healthy lifestyle communities, superfoods are usually exotic plant products that come from far away lands. These expensive, fashionable foods include things like goji berries from China and Tibet; açai, maca, chia, and quinoa from South America; coconut, nonifruit and durian from Southeast Asia; mesquite, agave, and spirulina from Mexico; and chlorella from Japan.

Every year, the industry seems to “discover” more superfood “miracles” from the recesses of developing nations to sell to American healthseekers. While many of these foreign foods are very nutritious (and indeed, I have consumed my share of raw cacao, chia and quinoa), why does more and more of what we eat in the U.S. carry such a heavy environmental and social footprint?

Can we not get enough nutrition without consuming far-flung novelties shipped from thousands of miles away?

Transporting food is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions, and accounts for 11% of all pollution coming from the food system. Each year, 817 million tons of food are shipped around the planet. The result is that a basic diet of imported products can use four times the energy and produce four times the emissions of an equivalent domestic diet!

Some would argue that because of topsoil depletion, environmental pollution, and high-stress, modern life in the U.S., eating regular food just isn’t enough to be healthy anymore. And besides, these new superfoods are sustainably harvested in a way that protects the habitats they come from and pays a fair wage, right?

Hmmm. Let’s break these arguments down…

Superfoods are sustainably harvested, right?

American entrepreneurs have been making a killing for the past decade selling luxury foods at a premium to people who don’t need them, by paying undernourished peasants in developing countries a miserably low “fair wage” to “carefully” exploit their natural resources.

In reality, because demand is so huge, farmers quickly replace local staple crops with “fairly traded” crops exported for American markets, which in turn undermines local self-reliance and the sustainability of nourishing traditional diets.

Take the recent boom in quinoa for example. Quinoa is a nutrient-dense, gluten-free grain that comes from the Bolivian Andes, where indigenous peasants have traditionally grown it alongside potatoes, llamas and alpaca for thousands of years.

With the burgeoning demand in Europe and the United States for healthy, gluten-free grains, quinoa—which is very high in protein—has become very popular, especially among foodies.

But because of this, today, most Bolivians cannot afford to buy quinoa, and the quinoa-growing region of the country is also the most malnourished because those who grow quinoa for export now purchase refined grains to eat from the store.

The region also faces decreased soil fertility, as farmers mine their soil to grow quinoa year after year to meet Western demand, instead of using traditional methods of rotating crops with llama pasture to restore fertility and prevent erosion.

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But what about “wildcrafted” superfoods like maca?

Indeed if the choice is between clearing vast tracts of rainforest to grow superfoods on sterile plantations that abuse their workers (many of them children) and “wildcrafting” the same crop from its native habitat while paying a relatively high wage to the locals, the latter is obviously the better choice.

But how sustainable can “wildcrafting” be in a $177 billion superfood industry, really?

Even in our own country, precious, local superfoods and medicines like morel mushrooms, echinacea, and American ginseng have been “wildcrafted” almost to extinction in their natural habitats, and now must be farmed on a large, environmentally-compromising scale to meet demand.

Thanks to the American marketing machine, little known foods and medicines that are carefully wildcrafted from their natural habitats don’t stay little-known or carefully harvested for long.

Just like American demand for sugar, coffee, bananas, and chocolate did in previous centuries, our ravenous national appetite for coconut, palm oil, quinoa, and dozens of other popular imported foods are decimating local cultures and ecosystems all over the world today.

The real cost of superfoods

Since the advent of industrialization (and the aggressive marketing that came with it), we have increasingly become a nation of unfettered consumers. Americans comprise just 5% of the world’s population, and yet use more than 40% of its resources.

Sustainable harvesting practices are simply not efficient enough to meet America’s ravenous demand for food we don’t really need. To be brutally honest about it, our insatiable hunger for everything from chocolate to soybeans is pillaging the planet and its people.

Simply put, Americans are eating their way through ecosystems all over the world.

No matter how you justify it, the choice to be a “green” consumer is still to be a consumer. Over-consumption and sustainability are not compatible, no matter how eco-friendly we try to be about it.

There is no inalienable right to eat chocolate or quinoa every day, on demand, especially when the people who grow it for us often don’t have enough to eat at all because of it.

On a finite planet with a growing population, it doesn’t much matter if we buy expensive, organic, “fair trade” cacao or cheap, plantation-grown cocoa. Either way, we’re ultimately getting our national chocolate fix by decimating local food systems and pilfering the limited natural resources of poor people in tiny countries who may not even have electricity and indoor plumbing.

A balance must be struck that is equitable and sustainable for everyone on the planet.

Soil depletion means we can’t get enough nutrition from our food, right?

Soil depletion is a major concern in the U.S. Many experts believe we may be on the brink of a food crisis because we have squandered and contaminated this precious resource with decades of intensive, industrial farming practices. This begs the question: Why are we not working to rejuvenate our own soils with sustainable composting and regenerative agriculture practices, instead of depleting the very fragile, tropical soils of other countries to meet the American demand for faddish specialty foods?

American demand for more food than we need is helping drive us to deplete our water resources very quickly. What many people don’t realize is that this same demand is driving us—and the countries from which we import superfoods—to reach “peak soil” too. So by neglecting our own soils, and importing superfoods to make up the difference, we are essentially starving Peter to feed Paul.

We can make a powerful statement against the malnutrition and environmental destruction caused by export farming by spending our money at home supporting small farmers who use good land management practices to maintain fertile soils that produce high-quality, local food.

Pollution and stress require greater nutrition, right?

If environmental pollution and the stress of modern life are the reasons why we need better nutrition, then, really, tell me what “superfood” could possibly make up for: toxic air pollution inside and out; chlorinated, fluoridated, medicated tap water; a processed, high-sugar diet; and a community-deficient lifestyle that demands too much of us mentally, spiritually and economically?

Frankly, we would be much better off spending our money and energy fixing these crucial problems than deluding ourselves that goji berries are going to somehow make a difference.

“Regular” food just isn’t healthy anymore, right?

If by “regular” food you mean the Standard American Diet of processed, packaged foods and pallid, pre-ripe produce shipped hundreds or thousands of miles, then yes: “Regular” food is not enough to keep us healthy in the best of circumstances. In fact, this “regular” food is the very source of most of our health problems in the United States.

The irony is that before these nutritionally bankrupt, industrially-produced foods became the foundation of our diets, most Americans used to eat quite well, mostly from domestically-grown, organic, in-season crops—and we still can.

Other continents do not hold a monopoly on nutrient-dense foods.

When grown organically, sustainably and locally, many traditional North American foods like hempseed, sweet potatoes, blueberries or nettles can be every bit as nutrient-dense as any new-fangled food we might buy from afar. And, I believe that choosing such time-tested domestic foods is a big part of solving our problems of over-consumption, soil depletion, environmental pollution and high-stress, modern life.

Here are my favorite 10 homegrown superfoods. These extremely nutritious, domestic beauties are affordable, readily available, and can be locally and sustainably produced very easily. Enjoy them with a clean conscience!

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