The SUPERfood Chain
The documentary, The Superfood Chain, is an eye-opening look at the far-reaching impact the consumption of “superfoods” has on the countries, communities, and people who produce and rely on them as traditional staple foods and sources of income. In particular, wild salmon, quinoa, coconut, and teff. We’ve been ecstatically ingesting these (and more) superfoods in response to the widely broadcast wisdom that they contain the secrets to digestive wellness, general health success, and even disease prevention. They are all indeed chock-full of multiple nutrients and benefits that the farmers, fishers, and nutritional professionals hail and encourage as must-haves for healthy diets. But there is a little-discussed cost to the mass consumption that inevitably follows such publicity.
Filmmaker Ann Shin has delved into the effects that unfettered export, overproduction, over-harvesting, price fluctuations, and unsustainable practices have on the human sources of these foods. Shin visited Bolivia (quinoa), Ethiopia (teff), the Phillipines (coconut), and right here in Canada (wild salmon) to listen to the stories of the farmers and fishers who produce and harvest these crops and stocks and to explore how the worldwide penchant for each superfood has brought unintended consequences to communities and families who originally provide them.
The documentary is simple in its message: we must be more conscious about jumping on trends and choosing brands because there is more to these superfoods than just nutrition. They have a life before they reach us, and that life is nurtured by the efforts of traditional farmers and fishers. Simply buying more does not always translate to success for the farmer and food sovereignty is at stake.
The Superfood Chain gives us first-hand accounts from these modest operations, and features commentary from a child in each family, which is especially striking. Lively, bright, and deeply engaged in the enterprises their families survive by, these kids are articulate and thoughtful about what the foods mean to them (they like ‘em!) and know intimately the voyage each item takes from field, tree or water, to table.
You should know it too, so we asked Ann Shin to give us more insight into the complexities her film presents. (You can watch it by clicking on the link at the end.)
EP: Quinoa has reached superstar status in more ways than one. The actions of celebrities who drove the rise of its popularity had unintended consequences. For example, globalization spurred non-traditional producers like the US, Canada, and China to develop crops, taking the profits out of the hands of traditional farmers.
How can future promoters act more responsibly and in fact help growers benefit from a surge in popularity?
AS: They could inform people about the sources of these superfoods, naming fair trade organizations linked to the farming communities producing these foods. It would also help people feel more connected to the food and the farmers that grow it.
EP: Fair Trade is credited in the coconut grower’s piece for helping to allow Susan and her son Ken to make a decent living. Yet we know that there are very cheap coconut products available.
Are other growers in the area, or other countries that produce coconut, not benefiting from a Fair Trade partnership? What factors are preventing them from doing so?
AS: There are many coconut growers who aren't part of a fair trade organization. The global food industry favours larger growers and distributors when it comes to exporting and importing foods--it's a matter of scale. Often as the end purchaser we don't think twice about where the food is coming from, we just think about price. But when retailers and consumers like ourselves choose to buy fair trade, we're helping build an alternative global food network, where we can support smaller famers through their fair trade organizations.
EP: The Ethiopian government saw what played out in the quinoa industry and took measures to restrict the export of teff, a superfood that not everyone has heard of yet. They also recently loosened those restrictions.
How does that government intend to balance feeding its own country with reaping the advantages of export going forward?
AS: The Ethiopian government has been managing the export of teff with trade restrictions in order to make sure it continues to be available at a fair price for its own people. However, they are facing a battle overseas which raises an important issue about food sovereignty and a country's right to exploit those foods. A Dutch company called Health and Performance Food International claimed intellectual rights to the sale of teff and teff food products (including Ethiopian injera bread) in Germany and other European countries, so in effect Ethiopian growers would not be able to sell directly into those countries. The Ethiopian Attorney General is taking the company to court at the International Court of Arbitration. The issue about 'intellectual property' and biopiracy of seed and crops is an important one in this global market. For instance in Peru, maca farmers are fighting against seed pirates who have been smuggling the ancient seed out of the country. Maca is another superfood in high demand in China; it's in North American health food stores as well. Now maca seeds have been found in Yunnan, China.
EP: In Haida Gwaii, there are pockets of wild salmon that can still be fished to sustain families and local communities, but traditional purposes are only entitled to 2-3% of the available stock, which is impacted heavily by nearby commercial fishing and also by sport fishing, which is allowed 17%. Jaskwaan, whose family practices sustainable salmon fishing, feels that legal action is the only way to force sport fishers to practice ethical harvesting.
Are there additional ways to ensure that wild stock remains at a level that allows traditional fishing to survive?
AS: We, the consumers, can choose to eat other fish and take some pressure off that fishery! Lots of people like to eat salmon because it's a bigger fish, and it’s easier to deal with larger cuts like salmon filets/steaks, and it's known to be high in omega-3 oils. But did you know that other fish like sardines or anchovies are high in omega oils as well, and are a much more sustainable fish to eat? We could choose to eat smaller, more local fish, it’s healthier, as there would be less mercury in the smaller fish, and they're more sustainable.
EP: What do you mean when you say “the jury is still out on the nutritional benefits” of these foods?
AS: Great question… what I meant was, they are nutritious, but whether those nutrients help ward off/cure diseases or fight other ailments, is not always verified.
EP: A child from each family weighed in with their thoughts. This was compelling and the children were all very engaged (and engaging!).
How did you identify the families you chose to participate in the film?
AS: We travelled to each country and went to the farming regions we were interested in featuring, and met a few families per region. I chose families who each brought different issues to the tables and kids who each had different stories to telI. I loved how the Ethiopian boy, Yilekal, wants to grow up to be a soccer player and make enough money to hire a maid for his mom!
EP: The children are active participants in the work their families perform. Yet they do not appear to be misused and seem to enjoy both the food and the work.
Can you comment on the role the kids play in their families’ enterprises?
AS: Yes the kids, like Enedeg in Ethiopia, Nilda in Bolivia or Ken in Philippines, are active on their family farms, helping out with the farm work as well as going to school—that’s natural when you grow up on a farm. I grew up on a farm in Langley, BC and I helped out on the farm as a kid as well. It was fun working with everyone together—it’s a bonding family experience. Of course I complained about it as a kid, but I have fond memories of it now!
Remembering that agriculture has a deeply human component where families and communities are dependent on their crops economically, socially, and for their own nutrition will go a long way toward informing the choices we make when we buy into nutritional trends. Buying locally and practicing conscientious and judicious consumption will enable farmers and fishers to retain food sovereignty and to continue benefitting from the gifts their land has given them, while still allowing the rest of the world to enjoy the bounty of superfoods the earth provides.
Directed by Ann Shin, THE SUPERFOOD CHAIN is a Fathom Film Group production, presented by TVO with the participation of the TELUS FUND and the CANADA MEDIA FUND.
Ann Shin is a multiple award-winning producer, director and New Media Producer for CBC, Discovery Channel, HGTV, History Channel, PBS, and Fine Living Network. Her credits include: Turning Points of History, History Channel’s longest running series to date; Sunday morning Live, (CBC); The Heat with Mark McEwen (Food Network); The Four Seasons Mosaic (CBC), Gemini nominee for Best Performance Doc; and Chris Award-winning The Roswell Incident. Her films and series have been broadcast in territories across the globe and won numerous awards.
An accompanying website at Thesuperfoodchain.com invites users to explore the origins of superfoods and to delve deeper into lives of the people who produce them. It features short, interactive videos about the families profiled in the documentary, myths and facts about superfoods, nutritional information, and recipes.
Watch the documentary here: https://tvo.org/video/documentaries/the-superfood-chain