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.