We all gotta eat, but it’s no longer a matter of simply just shopping, cooking and chowing. There’s quite a lot that goes on behind the food harvesting and manufacturing scenes so that we can enjoy a diverse, globally sourced diet – things that are well beyond the control of today’s typical consumer. Rainforest destruction, for starters. I can probably speak on behalf of everyone reading this article by saying that NONE of us would intentionally want to pillage the forest, but the fact of the matter is that we’re all in some small way fueling the madness.
5 billion acres of rainforest covered 14% of our planet’s entire surface just a few thousand years ago but the view looks a lot different today. These fully sustainable ecosystems -- offering refuge to 2/3 of the species known to mankind -- now occupy a scant 2% of our planet. Located between the Tropic of Capricorn (22.5° North of the equator) and the Tropic of Cancer (22.5° South of the equator), they can be found in Indonesia’s Sumatran Forest, Australia’s Gondwana Rainforest, Brazil’s Amazon and Africa’s Rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo among a handful of others.
One of the biggest problems that these plant-rich and genetically biodiverse regions face is humans. We’ve become a greedy bunch, taking-taking-taking without giving serious consideration to the condition that we’re leaving the forests in once we’re done. Mmm-hmmm, it really is happening…day in and day out. Corporations continually get their hot little hands on the rainforest-derived edibles that make the world go ‘round, often by burning trees and plants that are deemed less valuable so they can seed large swaths of land with new, more profitable crops. The Rainforest Foundation estimates that every second, the equivalent of two U.S.-sized football fields of land (2.47 acres) is purposefully destroyed, amounting to 33.8 million acres annually. Go ahead and gulp.
However, let’s get real, shall we? Everyone likes to put devil horns on the big-bad mega money conglomerates steam rolling over the Amazon and other resource-laden regions, but they wouldn’t be doing it if consumers like you and me weren’t buying their wares. I know, I know…so many of us have been unaware that we were doing anything other than buying the food that we enjoy, but it just proves that taking active steps to become an informed shopper is far more important than ever before.
The next time you wheel your cart down the aisles of your favorite supermarket, please bear in mind all of the following ways in which rainforest regions have enhanced your diet, -- hey, it’s responsible for 80% of what you typically consume! -- and when at all possible, try to avoid ‘hot button’ ingredients that fuel the vicious deforestation cycle.
The number one source of C02 emissions in the Amazon Rainforest is cattle ranching, with 180 million hungry head yielding approximately 7.8 million metric tons of beef annually. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) claims that 91% of the forest has actually been cleared to make way for livestock pasture since 1970, which is the equivalent of one burned hectare of land per cow per year.
100% biodegradable and organic chicle sap is tapped from rainforest trees, boiled into a stretchy, chewable latex, and finally used as the base for such brands as Glee Gum, Peppersmith and Chicza Organic Rainforest Gum.
NUTS & SEEDS
Some of your favorite protein packed wonders – such as cashews, brazils, macadamia, peanuts, sesame seeds and kola (which flavors cola-type beverages) – are rainforest bred and born!
In addition to fueling slave labor and other terrible human rights violations, the sugar cane industry has been responsible for destroying massive portions of the rainforest around the world. Now that there is an increased demand for sugar cane based biofuel (which garners higher profits for economically challenged farmers), rainforest regions are increasingly being slashed and burned to accommodate this far more appealing cash crop.
Originally from Latin American rainforests, our world has a love affair with cocoa and all the goodies made with it, however highly unsustainable modern cultivation methods could render the antioxidant-rich treat a luxury reserved for the lucky few. Here’s the problem: cacao trees love the shady canopy offered by the rainforest, but today’s hybrids are being planted in full sunlight on totally deforested land, which slashes their lifespan significantly. Between the poor quality soil and the intense environmental duress, trees die in just under 30 years (rather than the 100 year life span they’re normally supposed to enjoy), which prompts farmers to clear even more swaths of land so they can start the growing process all over. Talk about the absolute epitome of unsustainable production!
This equally desired bean falls victim to the same cocoa conundrum detailed above. While it’s a naturally shade-loving botanical, farmers have taken a shine to cultivating high-yield versions in deforested areas that happen to require far more pesticides than their brethren. Constant exposure to direct sunlight also ramps up their growth, making them so hungry that they typically deplete the soil of its nutrients in record time, forcing farmers to compensate by augmenting their nutrition with…what else? More fertilizing chemicals. You remember the phrase ‘live fast and die young?’ That describes modern rainforest-cultivated coffee plants to a ‘t’ since they perish in roughly 15 years rather than the 100 that they’re supposed to live.
Among our favored vices, tea is yet another one of those monoculture crops that has moved into what was once lush and biodiverse rainforest land and triggered various environmental issues (including fertilizer pollution, soil erosion, water depletion and the constant burning of wood in order to keep tea leaf dryers running). In a positive turn of events, the world’s largest supplier of tea leaves – Unilever – has now committed to obtaining sustainably produced ingredients, as has Tetley.
A lot of your favorite cooking and baking staples such as allspice, black pepper, cardamom, cayenne, chili pepper, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, turmeric, vanilla have humble rainforest origins.
Tapioca, rice, corn and soybeans are at the top of the rainforest roost, but take one guess which crop is king? Soybeans by a land slide, and if you’re asking yourself what they’re doing in the middle of the rainforest, the answer is simple – they’re the reason why Brazil is able to sustain their burgeoning beef biz.
We have the lush rainforest to thank for the assorted types of citrus fruit (including grapefruit, tangerines, oranges, lemons and limes), avocado, bananas, coconut, figs, guava, mango, papaya, passion fruit, pineapples, plantains and even tomatoes that we all consume on a regular basis.
VARIOUS TYPES OF OIL
Coconut and palm oil are typically sourced from rainforest regions, although the latter has environmentalists up in arms because its very cultivation has destroyed orangutan habitat and pushed the primates to the verge of extinction. Used in 50% of today’s readily available products (including cookies, breakfast cereal, candy, detergents and even biofuels), palm oil can be sustainably harvested but rarely is. It can also just as easily be avoided by reading labels carefully and seeking out more responsible alternatives.
Cucumbers, eggplants, mung beans, okra, onions, peppers, sweet potatoes, yams, winter squash are among the top vegetable crops that originated in the rainforest.
Over 1/3 of the 121 major drugs available to consumers today have been sourced from rainforest-derived botanicals, including a popular malaria remedy and hormone-based contraception.
Photo credit: cc: flickr.com/photos/fkehren