As part of a complex world-wide economy, our consumer tentacles have a very long reach. And we find that some of the products we buy were produced, harvested or manufactured by unsustainable, unethical, even illegal, means.
Coffee, like other valuable long-season crops, is grown in the tropics for export to places like the United States. It is often produced in place of food crops, even in parts of the world where poorer people struggle to own land and grow crops to feed themselves. Once grown as the undergrowth plant in tropical forests, it is now more commonly planted in sunny plantations and sold to major coffee producers. The rainforests are stripped for these monoculture plantations, exposing thin tropical soils. Since they are monocultures, it is easier for disease and pests to gain a foothold, necessitating higher inputs of toxic pesticides.
"By shifting away from traditional practices, you lose an incredible amount of topsoil [and] contaminate waterways," Robert Rice, a co-author of an article on the topic in Bioscience explained in a Huffington Post interview. While coffee is wildly popular and widely grown, the more obscure pine nut presents a different set of challenges. A majority of the pine nuts imported for use in pesto here in the United States come from the Korean pine tree. It grows extensively in the temperate rain forest of southeast Russia and is most often gathered from the wild by local collectors.
The Wildlife Conservation Society's Jonathan Slaught explained recently in the New York Times that the expanding road system in this part of Russia has given wider access to these forests. Along with greater global demand, there is additional pressure on the pine nut supply and the rich ecosystem (including the Siberian Tiger) in which we find them. A simple solution to this quandary is much closer to home. Though many believe that it is the pine nut that gives the unique flavor and texture to pesto, Slaught contends that there are many alternatives, including pinyon pine (from western US forests), cashews, walnuts and almonds.
This part of Russia is also home to our third dubious product, oak lumber for hardwood flooring here in North America. The World Wildlife Fund has estimated that the region has exported four times more lumber than was legally permitted during the ten year period of their recent study. An area of woodland the size of Pennsylvania (much of it home to those Siberian Tigers) has been lost to fire and illegal logging since the turn of the century.
Alexander von Bismark, director of the Environmental Investigation Agency, lead a team to Russia and China to explore the illegal business ventures of one of the companies that has been responsible for exporting much of this lumber, Hunchun Xingjia Wooden Flooring. Their research showed that the company imported large amounts of illegally cut Mongolian Oak to well-known US wood retailer Lumber Liquidators.
Far away as the problems may seem, we can be part of the solution to these challenges. Take some time to do a bit of internet research. Inquire about where your products come from when you shop. Insist upon products that are produced locally or certified as sustainably produced.