By Emma Grace Fairchild:
One of the most rewarding things about choosing a healthful and conscious diet is the knowledge that you are contributing to a healthier earth. The standard American diet causes a great deal of environmental damage, such as toxic pesticide runoff from conventionally grown produce and pollution from cow manure on factory feedlots. Knowing that our food choices could avoid these red flags of environmentalism is an important step, but there is much more behind every decision we make when we buy a product. Occasionally, a genuinely nutritious food that gains popularity can have hidden consequences regarding growing conditions, effects on the environment, or harvesting methods. There have been reports of certain trends in health foods (superfoods, specifically) having a detrimental effect on the environment because of their popularity. Quinoa, cordyceps mushroom and chaga are three examples of this.
Chaga is a fungus that grows on birch trees in northern climates of the northeast U.S., Canada and Europe. Chaga is purported to have intensely medicinal properties, including certain abilities to retard cancer cells and promote overall wellness because of its high antioxidant levels. Many people go on “chaga hunts” to harvest the dark mycelium masses that resemble burnt wood, and commercial demand is high. In the last decade, there has been a substantial increase in unregulated harvesting of chaga growths. Also, amateur mushroom seekers often damage the trees due to incomplete harvesting or poor harvesting abilities. There are new reports that chaga is becoming more and more difficult to find in the wild, with no recognition of its unique role in local ecosystems. The effects of such extreme removal are not yet known.
This same kind of overharvesting is also happening to the cordyceps fungus of Nepal’s Himalayas. Extremely popular in Chinese medicine, cordyceps is used as an aphrodisiac and for its general medicinal properties. Because of the high demand, local people in the highlands of the Himalayas are stripping the hillsides every season, threatening the very existence of this organism. A parasitic fungus, cordyceps grows in caterpillar larvae, the fruiting body of which is harvested each summer, which makes it unique. Not only is the ecosystem in the Himalayan Mountains incredibly complex, but it is also fragile. The unregulated and abusive harvesting of this one-of-a-kind organism may prove to have serious side effects on the entire area.
High demand for a product can lead to consequences other than ecological exploitation. Aside from the repercussions for the ecosystem as a whole, there is also a human aspect to extreme harvesting. In the case of cordyceps, there is a huge discrepancy between the amount natives are paid for their harvest and the inflated cost that the product yields each time it changes hands. The increased popularity of quinoa, the well loved super food, has had a serious effect on the local farming people of Bolivia and Peru. This high protein, highly nutritious seed is a staple of the Andean diet and can provide important nutrients to fight malnutrition; however, since quinoa has become such a desirable commodity and now fetches a high price on the export market, local farmers would rather sell all of their crop than keep some to feed their families. The farmers are earning a higher income, but spending their profits on cheap, westernized foods like processed flour and rice, which have much lower nutritional values.
Ultimately, examples such as these serve to keep consumers aware of the entire impact their food choices can have. If a health food is extremely popular but is exotic or wild, it is especially important to scrutinize the source to assure it is being harvested sustainably, with preservation in mind. This may also inspire you to research local and abundant superfoods in your own area. Often, common weeds and other flora and fauna grow prolifically around us, and can be host to great nutrient density.