The new American diet is becoming increasingly reliant on imported food to display a rainbow of produce at the grocery store and accommodate modern culinary trends. Within the last few decades, fruits such as lychee and papaya have become commonplace in the standard grocery store, even though they are largely grown over 3,000 miles away from the United States. Foodnetwork.com alone features nearly 500 different recipes that include papaya in their ingredient list.
The monocropping of this produce (growth of a single plant species over a large geographical space) contributes significantly to the changing climate, especially when issues such as global transportation and storage are taken into consideration. Pesticides are frequently used in this process, as they are able to make the land become artificially fertile. This can mean multiple cultivations in a single growing season, increased yield on a single plot of land and less manual labor for farm workers. However, this also means soil degradation, groundwater depletion, and direct damage to pesticide handlers’ health.
For the last ten years, fruits that were once seen as unique treats, like the avocado, have skyrocketed in consumption. In 2011, Subway claimed to “Help the Avocado Go Mainstream” by adding it to their fast food menu, featuring celebrities such as Michael Phelps in television commercials to help advertise. The tropical crop quickly went from a specialty good to an expectation at any place where food is sold. In 2018 alone, over one million tons of avocados were eaten in the United States, most of which were grown via monoculture internationally. Research shows that producing a single avocado uses around 80 gallons of water and has a footprint equivalent to over 400g of carbon dioxide.
While this may lead to issues in sustainability long term on its own, there is another trend which poses a new threat to food security as well. Another attribute that papaya, lychee and avocado all have in common is that their plant requires a pollinator in order to bear fruit. According to the US Department of Agriculture, one in three bites of food in the United States relies on bee pollination. This means that a flowering papaya plant, for example, needs a moth, bird or bee to physically collect pollen sacs from one flower and travel with them to another. This relatively simple process allows for the production of the vast majority of the world’s top crops.
As the global availability of tropical fruits increases, the threat of endangerment to their pollinators is on the rise as well. These trends are not related in cause, but will ultimately have a significant impact on one another. Pollinator species populations are continuing to shrink in size, especially in areas where the world’s produce is largely grown. Goods such as eggplants, lettuce, and bell peppers are all self-pollinating and would not be affected by the loss of pollinator species. However, these are not the crops which have increasing modern demand. Nearly two thirds of agricultural imports into the United States are now tropical products, such as mango, turmeric, and coffee. 80% of the fastest growing crops require pollination in order to grow.
According to most current scientific opinions, there is no single cause that can be blamed for the loss of most pollinator species. It is likely a synergy of several environmental challenges which together create the viral harbinger of “save the bees”. Habitat loss, land development and parasites are all among the primary threats to pollinator populations. The changing climate also has an effect, as mismatches in seasonal timing are becoming more prevalent. As it relates to monocropping, however, it is the significant and growing use of pesticides for plant growth that has the most relevant damaging effect. Neonicotinoid insecticides, which were popularized in the 1980s to coat a variety of seed types, have been identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a major risk factor to pollinator species. This point is where the negative feedback loop can be identified. As demand for tropical produce increases, the use of pesticides in monocropping increases. Pesticides harm the pollinators of these tropical fruits, which means that as demand increases, the difficulty of growing these goods also increases.
Americans may need to accept an overarching culture shift towards a less colorful grocery store. The expectation that papaya, lychee, and avocado will be available across the country all year long may not be realistic forever. For the importing and exporting countries alike, this could become an issue of food security. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, the volume of fruits cultivated in the top producing countries has doubled. This growth in horticulture, including citruses, guavas and bananas, primarily develops the export industry rather than being used to feed the growing populations of the countries themselves.
The United States imported around $20 billion worth of tropical products last year, which contributes significantly to the GDP of many top producing regions. Latin America, for example, is one of the leading food producing parts of the world. Their “flourishing” agricultural industry produces a substantial volume of goods each year. However, much of the population of these countries does not have access to the goods produced. Cultivated and exported, the tropical goods benefit the American grocery store without ever feeding the population who grew them.
Some argue that creating a regulatory framework of export restrictions will help combat food insecurity in these top producing nations. However, it is unclear how the growing problems of pollinator vulnerability and the changing climate will make these policies that much harder to craft. While it is not just lychee, papaya and avocado which are experiencing this phenomenon, they exemplify a larger global problem. What is clear is that the fruit and vegetable rainbow found across the United States may be quickly fleeting. Sustainable, fair trade tropical produce does exist, but continues to be challenging to find and considerably more expensive. Whether it will be the ultimate endangerment of the world’s pollinator species or an eventual restriction on tropical imports, guacamole may soon cost more than two dollars extra.
Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on Dec. 19, 2019.