Before you start reading this, I just want to clarify something. This is not a post saying you shouldn’t be vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian or whatever other type of diet you may choose. This is not a post to discuss the validity of dietary choices, or pit them against each other in order to discern which is the truly perfect one. This post is both for people who have become vegan (or have decided to reduce their meat/dairy intake) and those that haven’t. It’s about getting more information out there so that we can make more considered choices.
Diets are such a contentious issue, and I’m not planning to wade into those arguments right now. However, some foods that can often be staples in a vegan diet are problematic in ways that don’t get a lot of air time, and can be related to suffering and environmental destruction. This post is simply designed to discuss these facts so that we can evaluate and question our own habits, whatever they may be.
So, let’s talk about some problems we may see in certain foods.
I’ve featured this on the blog before, but there are issues with the avocados many of us may be eating. Avocado is a common choice among vegans and non-vegans alike, especially as its popularity has continued to grow in recent years. However, avocado farming is also linked to deforestation, drug cartels and drought.
In Michoacán, Mexico, farmers are illegally razing pine forests, a vital habitat for indigenous animal species, to plant avocado trees. These trees require a lot more water, diverting natural water sources from local animal species too. Avocados have also become a lucrative business for Mexico’s drug cartels. When the farmers refuse to pay the gangs, their orchards and processing plants are burned down, or worse.
Petorca, Chile, is another large avocado producer. Avocado farming there is exacerbating an acute water shortage in a country where water is already privatised. Avocado plantations install illegal pipes and wells to divert water from rivers to irrigate their crops, which forces local populations to survive on contaminated water brought in by trucks.
Californian Avocados also can’t be classified as a brilliant option, as the state is constantly dealing with the effects of droughts and wildfires. The avocado’s native environment is a tropical one, and considering just how much water they require, this thirsty crop isn’t helping Californians out either.
Beyond all of this, many avocados leave their farms in order to be transported thousands of miles away to the rest of America, Europe, and increasingly to Asian markets such as China, racking up a pretty large carbon footprint for such small food.
What to do about it
I’m not saying never eat avocado again, but perhaps consider having them occasionally rather than at every meal. Try to opt for organic, responsibly sourced options if you can, and avoid glorifying them online/on social media (even I have been guilty of this in the past!), in order to combat the hyperconsumerist culture that has led to their rapid expansion.
If you live in Europe you can also source avocados from Spain, the only country in Europe to export them, meaning they will have a smaller footprint and should be more regulated under EU farming law. However, avocado requires a lot of water wherever it is grown, so still try and consume mindfully and amongst a lot more locally grown produce.
Second only to peanuts in global consumption, cashews are incredibly popular in vegan cuisine and are often used to make dairy alternatives such as vegan cheeses. However, farmers and workers in the cashew supply chain are suffering every day due to low pay and awful working conditions.
Cashews are predominantly processed in India, where they are among the country’s top four agricultural exports, and Vietnam (often cashews are grown in African countries like the Ivory Coast or Ghana, but processed in Vietnam).
Millions of people are dependent on the industry, however, a 2007 ActionAid report highlighted how pressure from large retailers drives down prices. This is passed on to the most vulnerable in the supply chains, resulting in a rise of black market processing units in India where women only earn up to 30p per day. The deshelling process itself is also particularly dangerous. Cashews need to be processed by hand due to their uneven shape, but during deshelling the nuts produce a caustic liquid that burns the skin. In some cases protection is available, such as alkaline pot ash to counteract the acid, but workers have to pay for this themselves and often can’t afford it, suffering burns instead.
Additionally, in 2011 Human Rights Watch released a report detailing abuses in the Vietnamese cashew industry. The report found that many cashews are farmed and shelled by drug addicts who are forced to work as part of their rehabilitation, known as ‘labour therapy’. These addicts work 10-hour days for a few dollars per month (this is, by ILO’s definition, slave labour). The report also revealed incidents of beatings from truncheons, electric shocks from cattle prods and food and water deprivation for anyone who refused to work, which ‘constitutes torture under international law’.
In late 2018 Ethical Trading Initiative Norway released a study that stated that the use of drug detainees was now a marginal phenomenon but acknowledged ongoing issues with child labour, pesticide use, and water pollution. Additionally, the study only focused on five different processors and ten cashew farms, meaning there is still scope for error when it comes to labour exploitation in the overall industry.
What to do about it
Fairtrade cashews are available but, at this point, I’d still feel wary due to an overall lack of transparency on where the industry is actually at.
I would advise consuming consciously, and not in huge amounts, and contacting companies to ask about their cashew supply chains. This includes companies who make vegan cheeses and dairy alternatives; these items categorically aren’t cruelty-free if they’re produced by people who are enslaved or tortured in any way. You can direct them to organisations like IJM, who have collaborated with companies to clean up supply chains in the past and are experts in the field, or advise them to speak directly to Ethical Trading Initiative who are working on an action plan to improve the industry (contact details are at the bottom of the report for companies/suppliers to get in touch). When it comes to products such as milk, baking, or other options opt for oat products, which are far less harmful.
I’ve talked about chocolate extensively on the blog before too. Beyond the use of dairy, it’s important to understand that chocolate is an industry that’s rife with child labour, human trafficking, and deforestation. Luckily there are good ethical and sustainable alternatives out there too.
Approximately 2.1 million children in the Ivory Coast and Ghana may be exposed to the worst child labour conditions on cocoa farms. On average cocoa farmers earn less than $2 per day, and so often resort to child labour. Many children in Western Africa live in poverty, so begin working at a young age to support their families. Some children end up on cocoa farms because traffickers tell them that the job pays well, whilst others are sold to traffickers or farm owners by their relatives who, unaware of the danger, believe that they will find honest work and send some of their earnings home. Traffickers also abduct young children from small villages in neighbouring countries. It’s reported that at least 12,000 child cocoa workers have been trafficked from neighbouring nations like Mali, Burkina Faso and Togo. Most of the children working on cocoa farms are 12- 16, but reporters have found children as young as 5. Children typically work 80 to 100 hours per week.
Additionally, large chocolate corporations also play a large hand in deforestation, encouraging farmers to clear West African rainforests to grow more cocoa plants, as well as destroying the Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests for palm oil plantations (palm oil is extremely common in chocolate).
Basically, just because your chocolate doesn’t include dairy doesn’t make it ethical. F.E.P has put together a comprehensive list of companies manufacturing vegan chocolate, and many of them don’t make the cut when it comes to issues of human slavery.
What to do about it
The good thing is that the F.E.P list also includes a lot of vegan chocolate that they can recommend, so I advise buying from that side of the scale. Beyond this, look for the shortest supply chain possible. Bean to bar chocolate producers own the entire production chain, whilst direct trade and single origin companies have chocolate which comes from one traceable source.
For alternative chocolate companies to buy from, you can also check this comprehensive guide from Slave Free Chocolate and this one from No Child For Sale. I (in the UK) personally buy from Divine, as it appears on both lists, and Rio Nuevo, as I know the owners and their entire supply chain.
Additionally, try and buy chocolate with minimal ingredients or which is specifically palm oil free, so you can avoid funding the palm oil industry. A lot of bean to bar and direct trade chocolate will tick this box anyway, as it’s usually artisanal chocolate produced with minimal additives.
These days most of us know palm oil is bad, I also wrote an extensive piece on that in 2018 which I recommend you read. Palm oil is incredibly complex because it appears in up to 50% of products in the supermarket, including vegan/vegetarian options, whilst also being the culprit for a lot of environmental damage.
Palm oil is particularly a problem when it comes to deforestation, as the rainforest is cleared in order to make room to establish palm plantations. A 2007 United Nations report names palm oil plantations as the leading cause for rainforest destruction in Malaysia and Indonesia, while newer reports suggest that 98% of the forest will be destroyed by 2022. This results in the loss of habitats for animals such as orangutans and sumatran tigers (as well as animals literally being killed in order to be removed), and overall biodiversity loss. Clearing rainforest land emits massive amounts of CO2, and if the forest is on peatland (as it is in most of Indonesia), the land is drained which can result in releasing up to 6,000 tons of CO2 per hectare. The planting of oil palms can lead to soil pollution, erosion, and water contamination.
Tthe palm oil industry is also responsible for an estimated 5,000 land and human rights conflicts. Those who resist forest clearance are often forcibly displaced, as they don’t legally hold rights to the land. Those living nearby are also hurt by air pollution from forest fires, contaminated water sources, increased landslides and floods without rainforest protection, and loss of livelihoods as the rainforest acts as a natural source of food and water. Workers on the plantations have also been found working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for below the legal minimum wage, which legally is slavery, and workers often suffer severe health problems from working with highly toxic herbicides such as paraquat dichloride (which is banned in the EU and many other countries).
What to do about it
Boycotting palm oil is both virtually impossible to do, and not necessarily the best solution. It’s an incredibly efficient crop, so replacing it with another oil could lead to more deforestation. The most important thing to do is to reduce demand.
Firstly I recommend that you read my full article on palm oil, which goes into more detail on why certified sustainable options aren’t necessarily great and gives you more ways to spot palm oil in products.
Secondly, it’s about buying less and buying better, as reducing this demand overall also reduces the amount that is produced. Ethical consumer has a list of palm oil free brands and those that aren’t, but get best marks (they also incorporate external criticisms, such as those from Greenpeace, of companies’ palm oil supply chains).
If you’re vegan or vegetarian you have to be extra diligent, as a lot of palm oil can be found in these products as a replacement for ingredients like butter. The growing use of palm oil is also often linked to the consumption of processed foods, so choosing to cook with fresh, local and seasonal produce (if we are able to), rather than supermarket meat/dairy alternatives that contain palm oil, will naturally reduce our reliance on the ingredient. For things like butter/margarine, you can also find a palm oil free recipe here.
This is actually the point in this post where news starts to get better. There’s been a lot of misinformation spread about quinoa in recent years, so this is included here to try and clear that up a little.
In recent years a stream of articles were released that claimed the increased global demand for quinoa had hurt people in Bolivia and Peru. As the price of quinoa tripled from 2006 to 2011, it was said the poorer population were now not able to buy quinoa in their own countries, instead opting for less nutritious options like pasta or rice.
In fact, the situation turned out to be more nuanced than that. In 2015 and 2016 research was released that explained that quinoa was not a staple or traditional food in Bolivia and Peru, meaning that the impact on poorer people was marginal when the grain became more expensive. It was also reported that malnutrition had been reduced by the demand for quinoa, and increased trade was linked to improved livelihoods of the rural poor in producer countries.
“If quinoa was the main part of the diet I would be concerned about the surge in price. If Americans started to consume teff, which Ethopians use to make bread and is a huge part of their diet, then Ethopia could potentially be harmed. But quinoa is not that story,” says economist Seth Gitter, an associate professor at Towson University in the US….
“The traditional quinoa producer is a poor, indigenous smallholder. The rise in quinoa prices meant these communities whose diet largely consisted of quinoa and llama meat were able to sell more of what they harvested for cash and with this buy fruit and vegetables,” says Paula Mejia of the Bolivian Chamber of Quinoa Exporters.
That being said, there are still environmental factors to consider. Beyond the carbon footprint of shipping quinoa, the rise in demand has led to reduced soil quality. This is because land that used to be allowed to rest has been used to grow and farmers have reduced their llama herds, which means they have less manure to use fertiliser.
What to do about it
While quinoa is not hurting the poor in Peru and Bolivia as once believed, it’s still important to consume the grain mindfully in order to avoid the overconsumption that has led to degraded soil and a high carbon footprint. Realistically, this looks like eating a variety of grains, and opting for organic and fairtrade options if you can, as these are the ones grown by traditional, small growers.
Beyond this, the other main issue that could arise with quinoa is a lack of understanding about the grain, which leads to agricultural monocultures. There are actually around 3,000 varieties of quinoa, but export demand has focused on very few of the varieties of the grain. In order to maintain and support quinoa diversity it’s a good idea to seek out different options when you do buy the grain, and consider asking your local provider/supermarket to look into stocking more than one variety in order to support diverse farming practices.
Soy is another ingredient that can be found almost everywhere these days, as it is both used for human and animal consumption. 32 million acres of land was required to grow the global supply from 2013 to 2014, the majority of which comes South America where production has increased 15 times over since the 1950s.
Initially soy was heavily linked with the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. After global outcry, Brazil has slowed destruction of the rainforest from its worst levels, but now another vital ecological region, the Cerrado, as at risk due to soy production. Since 2008 the Cerrado, the largest savanna in South America that is also a vital storehouse for CO2, has lost more than 105,000 square kilometres of native habitat. This is 50% more than the deforestation seen during the same period in the Amazon. Accounting for relative size (the Amazon is three times bigger) the Cerrado is disappearing nearly four times faster than the rainforest, threatening animals such as hyacinth macaws, maned wolves and jaguars, plus thousands of plants, fish and insects that don’t live anywhere else on earth. The removal of vegetation is also hitting the region’s waterways. Streams and springs are filling with silt and weakening the headwaters of vital rivers that flow to the rest of Brazil. Of a dozen major water systems in Brazil, eight are born in the Cerrado. There have also been hundreds of reports of slavery on Brazilian soy plantations.
Argentina is also the UK’s largest supplier of soya, with soy making up 31% of the country’s exports. Unfortunately, the Argentinian soy supply chain is extremely hard to trace. It’s essentially impossible for European companies to know whether their soy is produced through deforestation in Argentina, with scientists estimating that the region of Salta has lost nearly 20% of its green cover in the last two decades, a total of over 1.2m hectares.
Additionally, the growing of soybean is linked to worsening soil erosion.
What to do about it
In the case of soy, reducing meat and dairy intake is a very very good thing to do, as 70-75% of the world’s soy ends up as feed for livestock in a model that is completely unsustainable the more time goes by.
That being said, the reason it’s included in this list is because hopefully more and more people will move away from the amount of meat they eat, but we shouldn’t encourage them to simply switch to soy products. We don’t want to cause one problem by trying to fix another; intense production of soy is bad for forests and soil quality, so it’s important to reduce demand overall, not simply cut out the middle man of the animal eating the soy first. Instead, look for diverse sources of protein (which we should be doing anyway for our health) such as legumes and grains alongside soy. When it comes to tofu you can find brands such as Taifun that source super low-carbon European or US soy. And when it comes to things like milk, again, go for an oat based option if you can.
Additionally, after a campaign from multiple groups including Greenpeace, many multinationals including McDonald’s, Unilever and Walmart have pledged to remove deforestation from their global supply chains, alongside similar sentiments expressed by the EU. It’s important, therefore, to hold these groups to account, and make sure they follow through on their commitments.
Like avocados, almonds are incredibly thirsty, requiring 1.1 gallons of water to produce one almond. Over 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in California which, as we know, is currently in the middle of a drought. Water that is diverted to almond farms from far away rivers has threatened thousands of endangered king Salmon through lowering water levels, while over-pumping of aquifers leads to land literally sinking.
Additionally, almond trees rely on bees for pollination, with the industry requiring around 1.4 million bee colonies. Colonies of bees are brought to California specifically for pollination, and many of them die due to exposure to pesticides.
What to do about it
If you live in Europe you can buy Spanish almonds instead of Californian ones, but either way opt for organic in order to look out for bees, and don’t go crazy on the consumption. Regardless of where they’re grown almonds are still incredibly thirsty.
That being said, don’t go for almond milk, which requires 6,098 litres of water to produce 1 litre. Go for oat! Oats are great.
There’s not a lot of information out there on this one, it’s actually something I only learned recently myself. However, as one of the ultimate vegan/vegetarian staples, I think it’s worth knowing that the production of nutritional yeast releases acetaldehyde, one of a group of chemicals known as the volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Acetaldehyde is a chemical similar in both chemistry and toxicity to formaldehyde. It’s a toxic air pollutant that is classified as a carcinogen for humans that is primarily linked to oesophegal cancer.
What we can do
It’s important to note that several other industries also release acetaldehyde, so it’s not like nutritional yeast has some kind of evil manufacturing process. It is worth, however, asking nutritional yeast manufacturers what they are doing to actively combat the pollution they’re creating, and asking them to invest money into creating a closed loop system to prevent future pollution.
I know all this information can seem a little overwhelming, but it’s not like you have to stop eating all of these things forever. People still need to eat after all. Most of the actions points when it comes to these foods fall into three categories:
- Consume mindfully
Avoid overconsumption by varying your diet, not relying too heavily on one staple, but instead easing the load. If you can, seek out organic, direct trade, or fair trade options.
- Buy local
Both in terms of looking for European sources of foods and varying your diet to include more freshly grown local produce. The more you can get that was grown in your own country, the shorter the supply chain is likely to be. This also encourages seasonal eating, which is better for health too.
- Hold companies to account
Ultimately producers have far more power than we do to change things, so it’s about being vocal and asking them to do better.
And beyond all this, I think it’s important to remember that no diet is perfect. All we can do is try our best, and ask producers to do better. We can have a more ethical food supply, but we need to be willing to acknowledge the problems and ask for progress.