Your New Fave Food Is Damaging The World (Here's How To Make Up For It)

Hip food trends are all the rage on social media. But what's the social cost, and, more importantly, how can we fix it?

Think food fads are just annoying (and/or delicious)? Probably both. But that's not where it stops. These fads—avocados, quinoa, and whatever else you'll find on your Instagram feed—can also have far-reaching effects that damage everything from farmers' cultural lives to environmental stability. The answer isn't to avoid "food fads," though. It's to embrace the right one.

Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home.

Before we take aim at the latest crop of food fads, it's important to remember that enough vitriol has been heaped on the figure of the hipster as it is; there's no need to pile on. Besides, the hipster stereotype most people have held onto since 2002 is gone now; they've moved onto bigger, better, and hipper things.

A woman stops to use her phone outside a small London shop with organic produce for sale, 2013. (via iStock)

Yesterday's bohemians now wear comfortable pants, and they own cafés, floral design studios, and pizza joints—sometimes all under the same roof. They process your loans, design your websites, and, ahem, write your diversions. They even prepare your locally sourced, farm-to-table meals, at every price point.

The hipsters, it seems, grew up and mostly turned out alright. And whatever we end up calling this new crop of self-consciously counter-cultural young adults? Well, they'll get there, too. Because it turns out that the people we often deride as "hipsters" are actually just…young people. (Emerging adults, the sociologists call them.)

And it's these emerging adults whom you can thank for a lot of the food trends you see online.

Three young teenage girls sitting on park bench texting in New York City's High Line park, 2015 (via iStock)

Admittedly, the current food fads of the self-satisfied can turn the stomach. Many of the young urbanites who push them are like the Christopher Columbuses of everything they touch: "I discovered this!" they say, Instagramming a shot of their avocado smoothie. "This is mine!" they tweet, posing with a quinoa bowl. "Eat local!" reads the punk pin on the very expensive backpack. It's enough to launch a thousand fad-takedown pieces (like this one).

Irritating as they may be, now, the kids are actually onto something—at least with their "eat local" cry—no matter how late they are to this particularly ancient party.

The locally produced food supply is the most secure, freshest, and the easiest for local consumers to know about and to influence.

In 1989, poet-farmer Wendell Berry wrote, "Learn the origins of the food you buy, and buy the food that is produced closest to your home."

He continued, "The idea that every locality should be, as much as possible, the source of its own food makes several kinds of sense. The locally produced food supply is the most secure, freshest, and the easiest for local consumers to know about and to influence."

The not-un-Berry-like Preston Walker knows the power of locally sourced ingredients (which are basically the opposite of the fad dishes we're about to get into). Walker is the owner of Eat Here St. Louis, an all-local food hub that distributes area farmers' products to some of the finest restaurants in St. Louis.

"I think the biggest benefit of [sourcing ingredients from nearby farms] is what it does to the local economy," Walker says. "You're infusing money by just buying, just taking that part of your food budget and buying local. You're pumping that money into local farmers, local companies like what we do, who in turn have more disposable income to spend at restaurants and grocery stores."

That's a compelling point, but if we want to pick a fight with trendy post-hipster foods, couldn't we lump "eating local" in there with them? Well, sure, if you want to ignore most of humanity's culinary history. But for the sake of argument, we'll bite.

Say eating local is a trend, just another food fad. Then it also happens to be the one that can undo the very real damage that other mass dining preferences have engendered in communities all over the world.

Eating seasonally, eating locally, and letting that local food culture develop is incredibly important.

The movement in favor of local food could end the destruction caused by Instagrammable fave-rave ingredients—which almost always come from halfway around the globe. We're talking about stuff like:

1. Quinoa

The Western appetite for this ancient grain dates back to the peak age of the hipster. In the United States, quinoa (keen-wah, or keen-oh-uh, say the good folks at Merriam-Webster) even earned the label "superfood" on more than one occasion.

So what's the problem? Well, it's been pretty widely reported that as the price of quinoa tripled between 2006 and 2013, the local producers in the high Andes of Peru were priced out of the market and switched to a diet of Westernized processed food.

One problem with that? It didn't actually happen.

Juan Karita/AP

This is according to the economists who actually studied the claims, as published in a 2016 working paper out of Towson University.

"It is useful to know that the claim that rising quinoa prices were hurting those who had traditionally produced and consumed it—those households in our sample that produce quinoa—was patently false," the authors of the paper wrote.

The quinoa boom in the West actually put money in the pockets of Peruvian producers. It also created "little to no impact on household nutrition … in Peru," according to agricultural economist Andrew Stevens.

But the Western love of quinoa might create another problem, one that U.S. farmers and policy-makers have been wrestling with for decades.

Is the trade-off really worth it?

Western importers generally only want a few of the some 3,000 varieties of the grain that Peruvian and Bolivian farmers traditionally grow. This limited demand could lead to the growth of monoculture, or growing a single plant species in a large-spread area. This can leave crops vulnerable to parasites and pathogens, quickly deplete the soil, and eventually lead to reliance on chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

A farmer and technological leader in Chakicocha, Peru, 2015 (via iStock)

"Those [3,000] varieties, created by Andean farmers, are the future of quinoa, to adapt to things like climate change," Stefano Padulosi, senior scientist of integrated conservation methodologies and use at research group Bioversity International, told NPR in 2016. The farmers mustn't lose their crops' genetic diversity, is the implication.

It seems that with Western money come Western problems. Now Andean farmers have to decide: Is the trade-off really worth it?

2. Avocados

It's not just avocado toast. There are also the smoothies and, now, the "avolatte," which is basically coffee poured into an empty avocado shell. However you eat them, it's clear that Americans are in love with avocados. In fact, U.S. demand for the "alligator pear" grew by 230 percent between 2004 and 2016, reports the Harvard Political Review.

Most of these avocados come from the Mexican state of Michoacán, where demand for the crop has driven farmers to resort to illegal deforestation and extortion payments to local narco cartels like the Knights Templar, according to reporting by The Guardian.

A woman selling avocados in Mexico City, 2016 (Nick Wagner/AP)

Talia Coria, head of the Mexican attorney general's office for environmental protection's Michoacán division, told the Associated Press that avocado farming leads to 30 to 40 percent of the state's annual forest loss. The state is currently losing 15,000 to 20,000 acres per year, the AP reports.

Well, can't we just get our avocados from California, you ask? Not during seasons of drought, which recently struck the U.S. state to devastating effect. And never in the numbers that we import them from Mexico. As of Oct. 1, in 2017, the U.S. shipped more than 200 million pounds of California avocados, according to figures from the Hass Avocado Board. America imported 1.25 billion pounds from Mexico in the same interim.

Tofe Rios of Michoacán unloads a sack of avocados in California, 2003 (AP)

We don't have a solution, here. The best we can offer is to say that good things grow in the Midwest, too.

"Eating seasonally, eating locally, and letting that local food culture develop is incredibly important on so many different levels," Walker says. "I think that having access to so many different foods kind of dilutes a food culture to a point, because we don't eat what's locally available sometimes."

Maybe it's time to develop our own regional cuisines in our homes as well as at our restaurants.

3. Cashews

Pesto is delicious and vegan and totally in, but pine nuts are also crazily expensive. Enter "cashew pesto," a popular go-to sauce that's great with pretty much everything. And that's just one example of the cashew's rise to prominence: This nut's role as an ingredient substitute extends to butter (half the sugar of peanut butter), vegan frosting, and even dairy-free mayo.

But, as nongovernment organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) warns, cashews may come at a terrible cost.

You'd normally expect HRW to sound the alarm about ethnic cleansing and abuses within the diamond industry. It might come as a surprise, then, to learn that Joseph Amon, director of health and human rights at HRW, coined the phrase "blood cashews" in 2011.

Amon was referring to the cashew industry in southern Vietnam, where addiction treatment centers force some portion of their 40,000 detainees to work processing raw cashews in exchange for paltry wages, complete with deductions for their housing and "treatment."

Processing cashews isn't light labor, either. The nuts grow inside of a dual-layered shell that processors typically remove with cardol and anacardic acids, which frequently cause burns in the parallel industry in India, according to The Telegraph.

Maybe it's time to develop a taste for walnuts, pecans, hickories, or whatever tree nut grows naturally in your neck of the woods.

4. Lettuce—sort of. Not really. It's complicated.

Okay, we're cheating. Lettuce couldn't be called a "fad food," not by a long-shot. But hear us out. The narrative surrounding all of these food trends, at least in media reports, is that no one eats in a vacuum. The foods you choose to consume have real-life reverberations with mind-boggling reach.

Woman carrying beans in Congo, Africa (via iStock)

From effects on the growers' communities to supply chain workers to your social media networks, and, most especially, to the broader health of the planet itself, choosing food is always a political act.

Old Wendell Berry knew as much.

"Eaters … must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used," he wrote.

We'd love to know what Berry would have thought about the latest food-shock headline.

"Lettuce 'three times worse than bacon' for the environment, scientists claim," is how The Telegraph put it.

A farmer hand harvests iceberg lettuce in Castroville, California, 2009 (via iStock)

Sure enough, researchers out of Carnegie Mellon University studied the USDA dietary recommendations, which urge us to eat more vegetables and fruits, and then calculated the changes in energy use, water consumption, and greenhouse gas emission associated with hypothetical shifts in dining patterns toward those recommendations.

"Shifting to dietary Scenario 3, which accounts for both reduced caloric intake and a shift to the USDA recommended food mix, increases energy use by 38 percent, blue water footprint by 10 percent, and GHG emissions by 6 percent," the study found.

The takeaway in the Carnegie Mellon news release?

"Eating lettuce is more harmful to the environment than eating bacon."

Okay, but consider the factors that study looked at. They include processing and transporting those heads of lettuce, and how spoilage along the way contribute to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with a head of low-calorie lettuce.

Freshly cut iceberg lettuce is readied for shipping in California, 2015 (via iStock)

What if you grew that lettuce in your backyard? What if, instead of being shipped from a sunny farm in Mexico to snowy Minnesota, it came from a cold frame in Owatonna?

What if that head of lettuce was truly local?

"This isn't necessarily an angle that I really plug all that much," Walker says. "But there is an energy savings a lot of times in transportation by buying local meats and produce."

The trade-off would be that you wouldn't get to eat lettuce all-year round. Maybe that's not such a bad thing. After all, Midwesterners didn't have fresh spinach in August for hundreds of years, and they got along alright. Seasonal eating is a perk of the local-food movement, not a drawback.

The benefits of eating local don’t end there.

They extend up and down the supply chain, from producer to restaurant to diner and back again.

"[For] restaurants, you're getting a fresher product; you're getting a product that has a connection," Walker says. "It's a product that they can tell their customers, hey, you know, this came from 8 or 9 miles away, and that has a lot of marketability, I think, too, to customers.”

Walker continues, “The benefit for customers [is] the whole, 'know where your food comes from' aspect is becoming more prevalent, and people are much more in tune with that. So for them, they get the benefit of truly knowing that it came from [...] wherever it was grown, 10, 15, 20 miles away."

Then there's the flavor. If you doubt fresh, local produce tastes better than an industrialized product, compare a grocery-store tomato to an heirloom variety from your own backyard. As Walker points out, local produce simply tastes better.

"You are, most of the time, getting a fresher, more-ripened product," he explains. "So from a restaurant perspective, you're using vegetables and fruits that have a lot more flavor. More often than not, they're ripened on the vine."

Vegetable seller selling produce to his customer in Baheri, India, 2015 (via iStock)

So go ahead and call locally sourced food a "fad." Let the young, with their fresh eyes on the world, be smug about it on social media. Sneer if you must. Just don't forget that, for most of human history, there was very little on the plate that didn't come from the immediate area.

If you consider local food a trend, it's a darn good one. But, really, it's not a trend. It's a welcome return.

Eat Here St. Louis provides next-day delivery of local food items, direct from farm to restaurant table in the St. Louis, Missouri, area.

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