How much does your dinner cost?

Ruby O’ Connor takes a look at some of the surprising foods which are detrimental to our environment to produce.

What is the true cost of food we eat? Usually when we hear about sustainable and ethical consumerism, we immediately think of vegetarians and vegans who choose not to consume animal products. However, there are many products which are generally considered healthy, ethical, and sustainable, which in reality have a detrimental environmental and human cost. 

The avocado is a staple of manys a boogie brunch around the globe. According to The Washington Post, between 2000 and 2015, avocado consumption in the United States nearly quadrupled – from around 1 billion avocados in 2000 to around 4.25 billion in 2015. This is as a result of the current economic relationship between the United States and Mexico. Before the 1990s, there were restrictions in place preventing Mexico from importing fruits into the United States. While this restriction was in place, avocado production was limited to seasonal production in California, thus limiting its availability and nation-wide demand. However, after the 1994 Northern American Free Trade agreement, these restrictions were gradually lifted. As the avocado became more in demand, improved production methods transformed avocados into a mass-produced fruit, grown and exported to the United States from Mexico year round. However there are many ethical concerns surrounding this so-called ‘super food’. The first ethical concern with avocados is their growing violent impact in Michoacán, Mexico. Violent cartels such as La Familia Michoacana, The Knights Templar, and Los Viagras tax, extort, and kidnap avocado farmers, in order to benefit off their valuable land. There has also been increasing involvement of forced labour and child labour in Mexican avocado production. A second concern is that its farming may be causing significant health problems, such as liver and kidney illnesses in local communities such as Jujucato and Lake Zirahuen. It is suspected that the cause of these illnesses is chemical run-off from avocado orchards into natural water sources such as groundwater, streams, rivers, and lakes. 

Sustainably speaking, avocado production in Mexico is also responsible for the deforestation of Michoacán’s pine tree forests, which are cut down to be replaced by avocado farms and to create crates to transport the avocados. Significantly, deforestation then poses the threat of extinction for species residing in these trees, such as the monarch butterfly. Unsustainable water use is also a problem in avocado production. To grow just 1 kilogram of avocados, a grand total of 1,000 litres of water is required. Natural water diversion also reduces animal access to water.  

But most of Mexico’s avocado exports go to the United States. So what about avocados in Ireland and the United Kingdom? Irish avocados come from Chile, Peru, and Kenya, according to one article in The Irish Independent. Avocado imports in the UK come from Peru, South Africa, Chile, Israel and Spain. Peru and Chile face water shortages and dramatic environmental disasters such as drought and erratic rainfall. Spain, South Africa, and Israel are also considered water-scarce countries. Importantly, this makes the sheer quantity of water used for avocado production (intended for consumers in Western Europe) stressful to the local communities.  

Some restaurants in Ireland and England have removed avocados from their menu in an effort to consume consciously. Michelin star chef  JP McMahon doesn’t use avocados at his restaurants – Aniar and Tartare – because of their ethical and environmental implications. Similarly, Copia Green Café in Limerick avoids avocados, due to their carbon footprint. In 

Another majorly problematic food stuff is Palm oil. The demand for cheap palm oil produced in Malaysia and Indonesia is responsible for deforestation, modern slavery, labour abuse, and generational poverty. 85% of the world’s palm oil is produced in Malaysia and Indonesia. Conflict Palm Oil says, “Since the 1960s, a forest area larger than New York and California combined has been cleared for cheaply produced palm oil”. Deforestation again drives extinction, and reduces biodiversity. Animals like the Sumatran Rhino, the Sumatran Elephant, and the Sumatran and Borneo Orangutan are at a high risk of becoming extinct due to the expansion of palm oil plantations. Deforestation also contributes to climate change, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and removing trees, which are rich sources of oxygen. There are 3.5 million people working on palm oil plantations. Workers are trafficked and enslaved to work on palm oil plantations. Many workers are paid unfairly and forced into debt. Sometimes they are not paid at all, or have to bring their families to work alongside them to fulfill set quotas. Labor abuse in the industry consists of exposure to harmful pesticides, lack of safety equipment, lack of sick days, lack of medical care and lack of maternity leave.

Statistics like these beg the question; what is being done? Rainforest Action Network launched a campaign called Snack Food 20 to try and convince big companies to source palm oil more responsibly; this means ensuring that no environmental destruction or human rights violations occur in the production of the palm oil they source. Rainforest Action Network claims on their website that “frontrunner” companies are Krispy Kreme, Hershey’s, Nestle, Unilever, Kellogg’s and more. However, click into the details of each and every one of these companies, and under current status it reads two bullet points. One: “Ongoing sourcing from unknown plantations and high risk regions”. And two, “Company products at high risk of contamination with Conflict Palm Oil”. 

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm oil is a certification label that is designed to control responsible palm oil production. However, their certification standards are weak and many companies wearing the label still in fact use conflict palm oil in their products. According to the Rainforest Action Network, companies have to make commitments which go beyond the standards of the roundtable on sustainable palm oil certification to be considered responsible. There is a growing demand for full transparency and traceability to the source of the palm oil. Not only is “certified responsible” palm oil not actually transparent and traceable, palm oil is also disguised under different names when listed as an ingredient. 

Boycotting palm oil products might seem like the obvious solution. However, some argue that this might be counter-productive to the goal of sustainable production of foods. According to one article in the Smithsonian Magazine, palm oil production requires much less land than the production of other alternatives does. Additionally, the land used to produce palm oil uses less pesticides and fertilizers than other the land used for other vegetable oils. 

Eating ‘right’ has never been more accessible and yet never more difficult. And unfortunately, Palm oil and avocados are just two of the foods we love which have a negative effect on our earth. Other staples include bananas, almond milk and soy beans. In order to do our best for the world we live in, it is important to not only consider the nutritional value of our foods, but equally the cost of production and cost of transportation on our environment.