Superfoods have the power to mitigate global food insecurity and malnutrition via multi-sectoral interventions that support economic development, as well as food access, affordability, and availability.
Latin American policymakers could support domestic consumption by subsidizing the sale of sustainably produced superfoods in domestic markets.
Specifically, these subsidies would support farmers who use traditional agrochemical-free methods.
By Leonard Cisneros, Chiara Evelti, Olyvia Tremper, and Mackenzie Wenig
Superfoods are defined as foods that are “considered particularly nutritious or in any case helpful to human wellbeing and prosperity,” due to their high content of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Because of superfoods’ link to health and wellbeing, international demand for superfoods is growing, leading to an increase in production. However, these nutritious foods that the West has commodified have been grown and consumed sustainably by Indigenous communities for centuries.
Latin America, for example, is the largest producer of various superfoods, such as quinoa, chia, açai, and avocados. An agricultural system that was once small-scale for Indigenous communities has begun to erode soil and deplete forests in Latin America in order to produce for a global market, leading to questions on superfoods’ sustainability.
In 2022, the North American superfoods market was valued at USD 72 billion, with avocados alone valued at nearly USD 15 billion globally. The tremendous demand for superfoods has caused farmers to shift from Indigenous cultivation methods towards environmentally unsustainable practices. Traditional methods prioritized environmental conservation and sustainability, as opposed to more conventional agricultural practices like monocultures and high-intensity production methods that maximize output at the expense of environmental integrity and sustainability.
In Mexico, the primary exporter of avocados, growing demand has resulted in deforestation and corresponding increases in the use of freshwater and agrochemicals for production. In Brazil, the increasing demand for açaí has led to a loss of biodiversity with intensively managed açaí plantations considerably changing forest structure. In Peru and Bolivia, quinoa farmers have reduced crop diversity in favor of intensive monocultures to ensure consistent yields. The shift in agricultural practices has led to soil degradation, biodiversity loss, and a loss of traditional quinoa varieties. Currently, four varieties make up 90% of total quinoa production. The use of monocultures increases vulnerability to climate change and environmental stresses, making communities less resilient and decreasing the sustainability of cultivation in the long run.
In addition to the environmental challenges, there are rising nutritional concerns within many Latin American superfood producing countries. Recently, superfoods have gained popularity among Western consumers due to their health benefits in cognitive development and chronic disease prevention. These benefits have prompted many developing countries such as Peru to sell their superfood crops on the global market, bolstering economic growth. Unfortunately, high demand has put a strain on the domestic supply of superfoods, leading to exorbitant retail costs that are rendering these nutritious foods inaccessible to vulnerable communities. Peruvians are faced with substantial financial barriers to accessing these nutritious superfoods, generating concerns that this will exacerbate food insecurity, poverty rates, and social inequities in the country. Peru has the highest food insecurity rate in South America, with 51% of the population moderately food insecure and 20% severely food insecure.
Traditionally, many superfoods are staples that Indigenous communities have used for millennia. However, the explosion of global demand has commodified them for consumption by high-income populations, far from the cultural contexts in which they were traditionally cultivated. Superfoods have the power to mitigate global food insecurity and malnutrition via multi-sectoral interventions that support economic development, as well as food access, affordability, and availability. Latin American policymakers could support domestic consumption by subsidizing the sale of sustainably produced superfoods in domestic markets. Specifically, these subsidies would support farmers who use traditional agrochemical-free methods. Policymakers should incentivize ecological intensification to improve agricultural productivity while reducing the need for conventional inputs. Through sustainable agricultural methods and affordable consumption, superfoods can become ‘super’ not only for their distant consumers, but also for their local producers.
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Chiara Evelti and Mackenzie Wenig are MA students in International Affairs at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. Olyvia Tremper and Leonard Cisneros are MA students in International Development Studies at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.