Quinoa quarrels

The Guardian just came out with this article exposing the sad reality of quinoa farmers in the Andes: that high demand among vegan/vegetarians in the Global North for quinoa has forced up prices to the point that most Peruvians (and others) cannot afford it, and quinoa monocultures are forcing out the diversified farm systems around Lima.

While this isn’t a shocker (the NY times was on it, I believe in this article, a while back), perhaps we should have more clearly seen this coming. With explosive demand for a product like that, it’s pretty much inevitable that the demand grow far faster than the supply could increase, pushing prices up. Yet I also don’t think the answer is blaming vegetarians in the US who mostly are just trying to pursue what they believe is the healthy and sustainable alternative. I’m not speaking out in favor of uninformed idealism (international development is a minefield of that stuff); to me, this issue is emblematic of the broken connection  between us and the food we eat. The connection is so broken that we are only learning, years later, that our favorite new protein-packed grain is actually hurting a whole community of people and their environment. The sad reality is that we are often in the dark about the effects of our behaviors. If we’re looking for somebody or something to blame, it’s not vegetarians but an industrialized food system that has turned food into a commodity to be engineered, processed, and packaged, and made the link between us and our food increasingly tenuous.

As a student of economics and international development, I’m also left wondering what this means for rural farmers. I’m not sure I’m fully ready to write off export-driven growth, considering how important that has been to economic growth historically. But how can we envision a system in which farmers are able to be productive enough to generate incomes to educate their children, and sustainable enough to not destroy the environment? My inkling is that the answer is a lot more complicated than simply saying “to export” or “not to export.” This article presents an interesting contradictory view on the potential role of quinoa exports, and this one contradicts that. But I think that’ll have to be a topic for another post.

In the meantime, perhaps we can agree that the easiest answer for us probably isn’t trying to start a big quinoa farm in our backyard, but to more often seek out the local foods whose ramifications we can better understand.

Side note: While the article mentions soy as well, it’s my understanding that the soy that vegetarians eat is probably doing their own health a lot more harm that it’s doing to the environment, considering that most soy production goes to factory farm animal feed.

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