Quinoa, olive oil, avocado: How to be an ethical consumer of superfoods

As a conscious consumer, can I still buy avocados? And what local alternatives are there to quinoa? An overview.

Jukka Väänänen, guest author
Tempo di lettura
6 minuto
Colourful superfoods on a plate such as avocado, quinoa and olives
Let's look at three of the best-known superfoods, and how we can make more sustainable choices when purchasing them. © Shutterstock/zarzamora

The mention of "superfoods" conjures up TikTok clips of health influencers and Instagramable pictures of fruits, vegetables and grains. Despite a somewhat social-media-hyped image, superfoods have proven health benefits. However, with all food purchases, there is an environmental impact to consider.

So, let's look at three of the best-known superfoods, and how we can make more sustainable choices when purchasing them:

  1. quinoa
  2. olive oil
  3. avocados

Quinoa: the ancient protein-rich grain

The biggest success story of the plant-based and gluten-free food booms of the past years has been quinoa, a pseudocereal related to spinach. Just as spinach provided its most famous devotee, Popeye the Sailor, with super strength, quinoa is a superfood that packs a powerful punch. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), quinoa contains up to 21 per cent protein, much more than corn (10 per cent) and rice (8 per cent), for example.

Photo of a quinoa harvest somewhere in South America
From South America to the world: The global demand for quinoa resulted in a shift from local, family-grown farms to industrial-style production. © GettyImages/James Morgan

Quinoa is more than just a superfood, it's also a super-versatile crop. Originating from South America, it can be grown worldwide, in harsh climates, from sea level to high altitudes, in low-quality soil with little water and can survive in extreme weather from -8 to 38 degrees Celsius.

In Europe, the Anjou region in France has become the main centre of quinoa production. In 2020, around 4,000 tons of quinoa were harvested by 375 farmers, of which 20 per cent was organic, supplying about 25 per cent of all quinoa consumed in France.

This broadening of global production has had positive effects, such as relieving price pressure and allowing local producers in poorer countries to continue supplying domestically. However, the low percentage of organically produced quinoa in Europe does raise questions about the use of fertilisers, pesticides and sustainable farming practices in these newly created production centres.

Someone holds a glass of quinoa salad in their hands
People love quinoa - but barley and millet might be more local alternatives. © istock/GMVozd

The global demand for quinoa resulted in a shift from local, family-grown farms to industrial-style production, causing many smaller farms to go out of business. For a consumer, the challenge with quinoa is to find a balance between supporting new local producers, thus reducing the carbon footprint through shorter supply chains, and supporting traditional, non-industrial farmers in South America. Therefore, when purchasing quinoa from South America, give preference to fair trade certified products and when purchasing local, organic is the way to go. 

Conclusion: Relying on a single crop can impact the areas of production by leading to detrimental farming practices resulting in soil depletion and erosion, thus threatening the long-term viability of the land. You can help to reduce this impact by diversifying the grains in your diet. For example, substitute or supplement quinoa with grains such as barley and millet.

Olive oil: skyrocketing prices could make an old staple a luxury product

In Europe, olive oil is a staple in nearly every kitchen. Sadly, during recent years, dry soil due to record hot temperatures caused by global warming has resulted in poor harvests.

Old man harvesting olives from an old olive tree
Extra virgin olive oil goes through the least processing, requiring less chemicals with a lower overall environmental impact. © istock/CasarsaGuru

The low supply has culminated in higher prices. In the European Union, prices were 50 per cent higher in January 2024 compared to January 2023 (see chart below). The price surge is of such a dramatic magnitude that it has resulted in increased shoplifting and even the counterfeiting of olive oil by unscrupulous suppliers.

Graph showing that the price of olive oil in the EU increased by 50% from January 2023 to January 2024
Prices for olive oil in the EU are skyrocketing. © LGT

Whereas quinoa packs protein, olive oil could be called nature's health elixir. According to the American Heart Association, olive oil can lower blood pressure, thus reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death globally.

The olive oil on most European tables is produced in Europe, therefore, long supply chains across continents and oceans are not a significant factor. The main thing to look for is to see if your olive oil is labelled as sustainably produced and also look for an organic certification. Importantly, purchase your olive oil in glass bottles or recyclable containers and avoid plastic bottles, which are not as easily recycled as glass.

Conclusion: Large-scale olive farming can reduce biodiversity and increase vulnerability to pests and diseases, which may lead to higher pesticide use. Avoid purchasing mass-produced olive oils and, instead, opt for extra virgin olive oil from a different array of producers. Extra virgin olive oil goes through the least processing, requiring less chemicals with a lower overall environmental impact.

Avocado: fat, but not as you know it

Avocados are rich in fats, but they contain mainly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated "good" fats, which can help to maintain healthy cholesterol levels. Avocados are also beneficial to healthy skin as they are rich in Vitamin C, which generates collagen.

Man plucking avocados
A mature avocado tree requires around 76 liters of water per day. © Shutterstock/Akarawut

The challenge with avocados is to get them to just the right level of ripeness. Anyone who has ever bought avocados will have faced this dilemma: not ripe; not ripe yet; nope, you still have to wait; I'm ripe now, quick, make some guacamole; no, too late; gone all soggy. One ethical purchasing act we should all aim for is minimising food waste and in that regard, the avocado is one of the most challenging fruits, so here are a few tips on how to ripen avocados:

  1. Once avocados are picked from the tree they produce ethylene gas, which helps to speed up the ripening process. Place the avocados in a breathable bag and let the ethylene do its work.
  2. Another way - but more cumbersome than the bag trick - is to submerge an avocado in raw rice. The rice will trap the ethylene gases and hasten the ripening process.

Avocado farming is a water-intensive exercise, with a mature tree requiring around 76 liters of water per day during the peak growing season. Other crops, like grapes, for example, only use about half to a quarter of the water that avocados need to grow.

Photo of avocado toasts
As a conscious consumer, can I still eat avocado toast? © unsplash/Gaby Yerden/Shutterstock

A further challenge to avocado farming is their shallow root system, making avocados susceptible to water stress - they do not react well to waterlogging or drought. Therefore, avocado farming demands careful water management to ensure optimal growth and fruit production. Efficient irrigation techniques, regular soil moisture monitoring and adapting to seasonal water needs are essential for successful avocado cultivation.

Conclusion: Avocados are only grown in certain areas, resulting in long supply chains, which negatively impact the environment through transportation. When possible, purchase avocados grown close to home. This will support local farmers and reduce the carbon footprint associated with long-distance shipping.

The Princely Family of Liechtenstein's commitment to sustainable avocados

In December 2023, the Liechtenstein Group invested in one of Spain's leading avocado producers, Valle del Guadiana. The investment adds to the group's growing portfolio of innovative and sustainable agricultural investments. Both the Liechtenstein Group and LGT are part of the Prince of Liechtenstein Foundation, which is owned by the Princely Family of Liechtenstein.

The Valle del Guadiana farms are located near the mouth of the Guadiana River, an ideal climate for growing avocados where the proximity to the sea protects the crops from high summer temperatures. These benign weather conditions tend to generate an early harvest compared to other producers.

The water demands of avocado production require careful management, which is conducted using the latest technology, including satellite imagery. All the water for Valle del Guadiana avocados comes from the Tinto, Odiel and Piedras district, one of the largest proportional reserves of water for the growing of tropical crops. The soil in the area is rich in clay content, resulting in high water retention but also lowering the water needs per hectare of crop. All the avocados at Valle del Guadiana are grown and harvested sustainably, going so far as sourcing all the company's energy needs from renewable sources on the farms and surrounding areas.

This is an important investment that benefits all European consumers. According to the FAO, Spain is the 17th largest producer of avocados in the world and the only European country in the top 30. Increasing sustainably produced avocado production in Europe means shorter supply chains and a reduced carbon footprint. 

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