Emily Wanderer

Six Foods You Thought You Knew: The complicated past of our newly favorite foods

The latest fad foods – luscious pomegranates, nutrient-packed quinoa, and refreshing coconut water–have complicated pasts. Farmers and communities that depend on western appetites must contend with global consumption trends, international conflict, and climate change.

Here’s the farm-to-fork backstory for six of our favorite foods.

1. Pomegranates: Everyone loves pomegranates for their super antioxidant power and that has given new life to the pomegranate industry in Afghanistan.

USAID and Plant for Peace are working to convince farmers that growing pomegranates is more stable and profitable than the opium poppies that fill their fields. The groups hope to build a sustainable market access and infrastructure for farmers and other providers, and to recapture Afghanistan’s reputation as a pomegranate capital.

Some of the world’s best pomegranates are grown in Afghanistan. Photo: Canada in Afghanistan (flickr)

2. Vanilla: Arguably of the best vanilla comes from the island nation of Madagascar, which exports 80 percent of the world’s supply. While the familiar allure of vanilla might be in eternal demand, Madagascan farmers pay a price in labor, time and risk.

The labor is strenuous. Supply, demand and price fluctuations make the year-long growing and curing process difficult on the livelihood of farmers. Some farmers turn to other, less finicky, crops like cocao or cloves, which have more stable markets. Spice industry leaders offer programs to train farmers in new cultivation techniques, improve value chain efficiency and create stable employment in the industry. One company has also helped rebuild schools and improve education for children in vanilla-growing regions of Madagascar.

The vanilla blossom is pollinated by hand in Madagascar. Photo: Helen Graham (flickr)

3. Yerba Mate: North Americans have caught on to the ancient drink, in part thanks to Guayaki, which has a highly caffeinated objective: restore 200,000 acres of rainforest and create 1,000 jobs in South America all by 2020.

But the global fuss over their ancestral leaf tea has marginalized some smaller mate cooperatives and begun to price out everyday Argentinians. So the Argentine government proposes ‘Yerba for everyone’, an initiative that will give government contracts to small cooperatives, designed to reignit their business and provide subsidized yerba mate to local Argentinean consumers.

Yerba mate is drunk out of a hollowed gord and a filtered straw. Photo: Sales (flickr)

4. Cashew Nuts: Most of the buttery cashew nuts enjoyed around the world are grown on the continent of Africa, but are processed in other countries. This is a huge loss for African farmers, who miss out on the rich profits of the value added during processing.

USAID’s West Africa Trade Hub created the The African Cashew Alliance and targeted $50 million dollars in grants to increase cashew revenue in Africa. The Alliance provides technical and business assistance to smallholder farmers; facilitates investments including crop research and development; promotes market linkages and value chain efficiency; and facilitates sharing of best practices between cashew farmers and related sectors throughout Africa.

West Africa cashew processing increased tenfold between 2006 and 2009, generating thousands of new jobs, most notably for illiterate, rural women, according to Carana Corporation, a partner of the alliance. West Africa Trade Hub estimates that an additional 25 percent increase in processing would generate more than US$100 million in household income, particularly in rural areas.

The cashew is considered one of the highest valued nuts on the international market. Photo: Jelle Goossens (flickr)

5. Quinoa: Quinoa’s tiny grains pack fiber, vitamins, amino acids and much more. Prices have skyrocketed across the world and Bolivian farmers are scrambling for more land to grow this golden grain.

Now the ancient symbiotic relationship between quinoa and llamas is under extreme pressure, according to a 2012 article in Time Magazine. Llama’s guano is an ideal fertilizer for quinoa and for generations farmers dedicated 10 percent of the land to quinoa and the let their llamas graze the rest. But, now, farmers are selling off llamas to make room for quinoa, tilling fragile land, straining soil fertility and changing the crop output. And thanks to global demand and its inflated prices, farmers are selling all of their quinoa, raising the specter of malnutrition in families that depended on the grain.

Quinoa grows best in the arid heights of the Bolivian Andes. Photo: Biodiversity International (flickr)

6. Coconut Water: Filipinos call the coconut the ‘tree of life’ – not just for its healthy nutrients. The Philippines is the second-largest exporter of coconuts, and the industry has sustained economic livelihoods for generations. But the exponential demand for coconut has yet to reach the coconut farmer as increased income. Middlemen are skimming off all the processing value of the farmers’ coconut.

“A tree will give a farmer a maximum income of around $17.50. Think about how many trees a farmer must have in order to make a decent living,” says Frederick Schilling, owner of Big Tree Farms, which focuses on improving tropical food supply chains.

As the Western coconut craze presses on with no end in sight, over 60 percent of coconut farmers in the Philippines still live in poverty. Fair Trade USA, which certifies Filipino farmers and international products that meet sustainability requirements, provides training on modern farming techniques and value chain efficiency. It also allocates a 10 percent sales premium to a community fund for improving education, health and community infrastructure where farmers live.

In the Philippines, 60 percent of coconut farmers are living in poverty despite incredible demand for the tropical nut. Photo: Richard Parker (flickr)

Emily Wanderer writes for Global Envision, a market-focused blog from Mercy Corps, which is NextBillion Content Partner.

smallholder farmers, supply chains