Oysters, truffles, caviar… these delicacies are common menu items that you can find in high-end restaurants. These days, they’re also available at supermarkets or your average cafe. However, as demand for these increases, what are the environmental or socioeconomic impacts?
Lobsters to Caviar: Poor man’s meal
A majority of luxury foods today were once consumed by the poor as part of a staple fare simply because there was an abundance of them.
For instance, in the 19th century, you could get caviar for free in bars in America because at the time they were the largest producers in the world. In coastal communities, indentured servants were fed lobsters simply because they were in abundance at the bottom of fishing nets. Likewise for oysters, which were easily found along the shores and served as protein sources for poor labourers.
So how did these end up on the ‘luxury’ list?
Interestingly, as transport systems improved with the advent of the railway, these commoners’ fare began to spread inland. When demand for these briny delicacies rose, so did their prices.
The impact of rebranding food into luxury items
These days, improved transportation is accompanied by slick marketing and the internet, creating more luxury foods that have impacts beyond borders.
Too expensive for locals
Once consumed as part of daily diet in South America, the prices of foods like quinoa and acai berries skyrocketed after being marketed as high-end ‘superfoods’. The increase has been so dramatic that traditional consumers could no longer afford them, leading to a phenomenon coined as ‘food gentrification’.
As the demand drives higher output, more farmers are getting into quinoa monoculture. In turn, this decreases soil quality as less varieties of crops are planted. Ironically, it’s cheaper for South Americans to eat food shipped from halfway round the world (ie. junk food).
Even if the farmers are finding a good living, mechanisation of the farms leads to under-employment in some poorer communities. And if a quinoa glut were to happen – if other countries manage to grow enough of the stuff – prices will plummet and ruin this already fragile economy.
Harsher conditions for fishermen/foragers
When it comes to seafood such as lobsters and crabs, fishermen these days spend a majority of their time in harsh conditions – it’s a risky business with a high death toll. Due to over-fishing, fishermen have to explore ever harsher conditions, but to many, the price is worth the sacrifice.
The danger is also true for truffle foragers – due to the high value of truffles and the shrinking of truffle foraging land, French trufflers are sometimes robbed at gunpoint.
Extinction of species
These days, Beluga caviar retails for about US$7,000/kg – a far cry from its value in the 19th century when a nickel would get you the same thing in America. The most prized caviar come from wild sturgeon harvested from the Caspian or Black Sea. So it’s no surprise that over-fishing and smuggling have considerably reduced the sturgeon population – not to mention the incredible waste of decades-old fish which are killed for eggs.
And we all know the impact that illegal trade has on endangered species like tigers and sun bears, body parts of which are ridiculously marketed as high-end libido-boosters.
Some of us may be able to enjoy these ‘luxury foods’ today, with the only limitation being the size of our wallets. However, the rising demand for these items hurt more than just our wallets – it’s a domino effect that trickles down to the society and environment of the food sources as well.