I feel like the name is a good enough introduction. Açaí bowls. It just rolls off your tongue.
Welcome all trendy foodies and indigenous peoples. Açaí bowls represent a recent shift in health food habits, gaining attraction from both carnivores and omnivores in the past few years.
Now, as you all know, this blog is pretty dedicated to organic food and sustainable farming, which in itself is seen as “trendy” (more on why that is so wrong later). But we need to get down to the issues:
Healthy and sustainable are not always synonymous.
Indeed, sustainable is a subset of healthy in the adjective domain.
Why, you ask? Let me expound (while including a personal narrative, of course)
Last September, I got my first smoothie from one of my favorite Westchester eateries, Skinny Buddha. Skinny Buddha serves up all kinds of healthy (and trendy) treats. They have peanut butter balls, vegan banana bread, smoothies, and, most importantly, açaí bowls! So while I drowned my junior year sorrows in a PB&J smoothie (typical), my friend got herself a fancy açaí bowl with all of the fixins.
I watched with envy as she spooned the thick creaminess with granola, coconut, and peanut butter, and I promised myself I would try açaí bowls too. I had heard of the health benefits of the amazonian berry, supposedly eaten by indigenous people for centuries.
A year later I got possibly the best açaí bowl of my life at JuiceBaby, one of my favorite London eateries. And so as I sat at my breakfast table discussing the health benefits of açaí to my mom, a thought crossed my mind: how have açaí farmers maintained growth for so many years?
You see, when food becomes trendy, everyone wants in. And in places like America or the UK, where food shortage is nonexistent, if people want interesting food, they want it right away.
So I finished my açaí bowl, blissfully pensive, and went to work, unaware that the news I sought would permanently change my idea of “healthy” food, and that I would never consume another açaí bowl again.
So before you read on, let’s get two things straight:
- Deforestation- defined by Merriam Webster as the action or process of clearing of forests. The EPA estimates that that deforestation (and its subsequent land use) contributes 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That means that deforestation is the second largest contributor to the greenhouse effect, and therefore climate change.
- Supply & Demand- explained by Encyclopedia Brittanica as the relationship between the quantity of a commodity that producers wish to sell at various prices and the quantity that consumers wish to buy. To really dumb things down, when both the supply and demand of a given product is ideal, the price will be ideal as well. Supply and demand can never be equally high nor equally low.
You know what, here’s a diagram just for funzies:
Okay, now that you have those two concepts under your belt, let’s get back to business (no we are not defeating huns).
I got to work and could not shake my initial thought: how is it possible that as more people try açaí bowls, more açaí magically appears? The demand for açaí has been explosive. In the past ten years, more online retailers, health food stores, and celebrities have implored people to embrace the açaí berry, correctly highlighting the berry’s high nutrient profile.
The açaí berry is indisputably one of the healthiest foods made available to consumers. I am not stressing the disadvantages of eating the berry. What I am stressing is the following:
The production of the açaí berry has become unsustainable.
As more people (mostly western, affluent millennials, to be precise) demand constant access to açaí bowls, more people cultivate açaí trees and then extract the berry. Açaí tree growth is perfectly fine, since extraction of the berry does not contribute to tree death.
Production of the açaí berry now has new demands to meet. As a result, outside companies (some are even agribusinesses) have started farming açaí trees on plantations. But wait, Karen, backtrack a bit. Didn’t you say that açaí trees grow in the amazon?
Why yes, yes I did. And so you ask: How do companies farm in the amazon?
And now we have our problem. The production of the açaí berry (or really any distant, indigenous, interesting, unusual food) and its subsequent popularity has now fueled the deforestation of the amazon.
And so you ask: What is so bad about deforestation of the amazon? It is only a little bit… Açaí trees are not big enough to cut down the whole forest!
Council on Foreign Relations has a pretty excellent visual essay on deforestation of the amazon rainforest. I would highly suggest you look at it if you are an açaí addict. If this is the only thing you’ll be reading today, then I’ll summarize:
Deforestation of the amazon has disturbed indigenous culture, ruined one of the world’s largest and most important carbon sinks, and made Brazil reliable on environmentally dangerous methods of economic growth.
So as we westerners obsess over the health benefits of açaí, our continuous (and frequently insatiable) demand for trendy health emits billions of tons of greenhouse gases, simultaneously disrupts Earth’s means of regulating atmospheric carbon levels, and takes away the living space for thousands of indigenous, amazonian people.
And now I ask: Why?
Why is it so necessary for our tastes to be satisfied? Why have we confounded the idea of health with detriment? Why do we consider individual wellbeing independent of the wellbeing of our planet?
I think what I am most confused about is why we don’t just rely on the healthy foods that naturally grow in the soil around us. For example, I am lucky enough to live in New York, where the soil is really good. In the summer, I can buy (from local, organic farmers) or grow rhubarb, raspberries, string beans, beets, and so much more!
In so many parts of the world (a discussion on why not the entire world is for later) there is arable, quality land to grow. And if not, new methods for growth like hydroponics offer everyone access to nutrient-dense food. So why do we call on “superfoods” like the açaí berry, whose high-demand production lead to environmental damage, instead of supporting the beautiful land that surrounds us?
Such farming may not be as lucrative, from a financial perspective. But it will guarantee that health and sustainability can coexist.
So if we get back to the two main focuses of this post:
- I am not eating açaí bowls any more.
- Sustainability is a subset of health.
We see that in order to be both mindful of the planet and mindful of personal wellbeing, we need to understand how the two relate. Açaí bowls are not the only foods whose health has been corrupted by unrealistic demand. Instead, açaí acts as the conduit for the discussion of the marriage of environment and individual in terms of wellbeing.
As consumers, we have a responsibility to be aware of what we purchase. The obvious stress of buying “healthy” is something that people of my generation are increasingly aware of and practicing. However, the stress of buying “sustainable” is only vaguely understood by both those who market and purchase such practices.
In order to better understand the relationship between the two ideas, we need to recognize that our access to healthy food will be limited to our access of sustainable food.
But that’s okay! Because we have this perfect Earth that can supply açaí to the amazon rainforest area and grapes to California.
So, beet bowls, grape bowls, seasonal/local/organic whatever bowls, come on down! Perhaps the tourism incited by “local bowl delicacies” will prove more lucrative than deforestation.