Quinoa, Complicated

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Photo via net_efekt

Food writer Joanna Blythman recently wrote an article in the Guardian with the attention-seeking title “Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?”

This “unpalatable truth” is about how quinoa production is affecting the farmers in Bolivia and Peru. But instead of citing unethical free trade laws as a cause or exploring how globalization can lead to both exploitation and revenue boosts for farmers in developing countries, Blythman extends a rather immature and simple thesis: Bolivian and Peruvian farmers are suffering because vegans and vegetarians are buying more foreign foods to supplement their diets.

It is an argument that is meant to be divisive, targeting one group of conscientious consumers (vegans) in favor of others (such as eco-conscious meat-eaters). But this issue is more complicated than just vegans choosing to eat more of this nutritious super-food. (In fact, vegetarians make up only 5 percent of the population in the U.S and 6 percent in the U.K. Vegans are even fewer in numbers. I doubt it is vegans alone who have tried this protein-heavy food and loved it.)

It’s unfortunate that Blythman chose to frame the article in this way, because at the heart of the matter is a complex problem. The real meat of this issue is that many Bolivians and Peruvians who are farming quinoa are choosing to export the product for profit, rather than eat any themselves or sell locally, and the high local prices of quinoa are making it more of a “luxury” food in certain areas in South America. In fact, Paola Mejia, general manager of Bolivia’s Chamber of Quinoa Real and Organic Products Exporters explained that many are choosing to eat imported rice and noodles and even Coca-Cola instead, because it’s cheaper, and there’s an appeal for Westernized foods over traditional Bolivian fare.

But, some Bolivians are able to make a better living because of quinoa’s popularity. People who left their homes for job opportunities in the cities are migrating back to rural areas to farm quinoa. Yet, even as farmers might be finding more success, the land disputes, malnutrition and possible environmental degradation caused by high quinoa demand are new challenges the Bolivian and Peruvian people will face.

As consumers in the U.S., what are our options to support quinoa farmers in Bolivia and Peru?

Despite the array of boxes on the supermarket shelves, we as consumers have very little choices when it comes to food available to us and very poor standards for a “fair-trade” label. This is an effect of globalization in a world that doesn’t reveal the true cost or mileage of our food. The best way to have control over our food choices is to grow our food ourselves or buy locally. Is the answer then to give up quinoa for good?

I am reminded of a speech I once attended which was given by a flower grower in Colombia who spoke about her poor working conditions in an industrial greenhouse. The flowers you see in supermarket stores, daisies and roses and sunflowers, are all grown in places like the one in which she worked. She spoke of the exposure to dangerous pesticides, the oppression and disappearance of union leaders, and long hours at work with very little pay. And still, she told us not to stop buying the flowers for her sake. The flowers are her livlihood, she told us. We should use our weight as consumers to speak out that we care.

It is not a perfect solution, and in the end, it feels like consumers have very little power to change things. But, at least we are listening to the stories of where our food is coming from. And in the face of our complex, interconnected and highly exploitative food system, the truth is, we are doing the best we can.

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2 thoughts on “Quinoa, Complicated

  1. Interesting article. As a quinoa-lover (and vegan who tries to eat as local as possible), you caught my attention right away. This is definitely a complex issue, and I don’t have any answers for the rest of the world.

    “The best way to have control over our food choices is to grow our food ourselves or buy locally,” you said. “Is the answer then to give up quinoa for good?”

    For me, the answer lies in giving quinoa-growing a shot. The information I’ve come across tells me there’s a possibility–although if we have a very hot summer it may not work out (for other readers: I live in southwestern Wisconsin).

    If it works, though, you can bet I’ll be turning cartwheels in excitement :-)

  2. The following is not meant as a criticism of the original post or the commenter–it is meant to clear the air and dispel some of the disinformation about quinoa that has surfaced on any number of American media outlets (NYTimes, Huffington Post & others), which take the point of view that those of us who enjoy quinoa as another starch option are harming Bolivians and or Peruvians.

    Duane Johnson, a Montana farmer who introduced growing quinoa in the US back in the early 80s, said that by the late 80s, the US accounted for 37% of the world’s production of quinoa–the US share has fallen to 2%, partially because of the expansion of growing in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador and partially due to the low demand in America throughout the 90s. You can stack all the vegans & vegetarians end to end and not influence too darn much demand on anything other than wool socks, in my opinion (and I’ve been vegetarian 40 years).

    The “OMG, Americans & Europeans eating quinoa is oppressing the natives” argument, to me, sounds First-World colonialist. The farmers there have raised their standard of living to the point where 30% of the 70,000 Bolivian growers are the adult children of peasants–children who had moved away to the city–but who have returned because they can now make a living back on the farm. To me, this sounds like a good thing.

    Yes, the price of quinoa has tripled over a five year period, but this is going to be a temporary spike and it will even out as the “fad” fades in America and Europe, and demand will adjust to more normal levels as will the price. Quinoa should still enjoy a much expanded demand over where it was in the 70s, when the only people who ever heard of it were die-hard food co-op members (in America & Canada that is). Because so many people are now looking to reduce or eliminate processed gluten in their diets, quinoa is a perfect alternative.

    Finally, rice has almost always been cheaper than quinoa in Bolivia & Peru–and in fact, the staple starch in Peru has been the potato in its over 3000 varieties. I do not know where all the hand-wringing about Bolivians & other South Americans being “deprived” of quinoa comes from, but it smacks of paternalistic colonialism to me, where “we” know better than the local people how to best arrange their dietary choices.

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