Photo credit: avlxyz

A few weeks ago, the British news service The Guardian ran a story with the following headline:

Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?

This was probably the most strongly-worded headline of a sudden deluge of articles about quinoa, its cultivation, its farmers and the far-reaching consequences of the commodification of food. Besides The Guardian, NPR, Mother Jones and all ran similar articles, either supporting or countering the original “unpalatable truth” about quinoa: that its exportation for Western health food nuts was screwing over poor people in Bolivia and Peru by jacking up prices.

This wasn’t the first time popular news outlets took foodies and health food enthusiasts to task over quinoa. 2011 saw a similar glut of sensational pessimism over the plight of Bolivian quinoa farmers. Why? Well, we’re a privileged lot with gnawing consciences, and we tend to act like lemmings with our Facebook accounts. Three or four of my friends shared the Guardian article in a single day, and the guilt and grief over causing suffering among third world farmers was substantial and sincere.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, quinoa (pronounced keen-wha) is a grain that is native to the high altitude altiplano in the Andes. Quinoa’s something of an agricultural miracle; it’s the only grain that provides a full complement of amino acids, forming a full protein and also contains high amounts of calcium, phosphorus, iron and fiber. If you’re unwilling or unable to eat animal protein — if you’re vegan or vegetarian or simply can’t afford to eat meat every day — quinoa is awesome.

Quinoa was highly regarded by its indigenous Andean cultivators, who held it to be sacred. In Quechua, it’s sometimes referred to as chisiya mama or mother of grains. In the last twenty years or so, it’s experienced a burst of popularity as the rest of the world realized how fantastic it is. The UN, in fact, declared that 2013 would be the Year of Quinoa, noting that its nutritive value and biodiversity could increase food security across the world.

Besides its nutritive qualities, quinoa is a hardy plant that grows well in cold, arid environments with poor soil; farmers in the Andes grow it up to two miles above sea level. It’s also highly adaptable. Efforts are underway to make the seed able to grow in North America, but at the moment, nearly every seed in the US is imported from South America.

Cue the hand-wringing amongst Whole Foods shoppers.

The exportation of foodstuffs is a snarly, tricky mess of political and economic forces duking it out with ethical concerns. The rise of cash crops — agricultural products that are grown solely for profit through exportation — has caused economic and ethical debates to rage. In developing nations with low food security, farmers are often unable to make a living growing crops that will be consumed in-country.

This can be due to a variety of reasons, but most often it’s because these nations are competing against developed countries with protected agriculture sectors, such as the US; it’s cheaper to import cereal grains from Nebraska than to grow and sell them in Kenya, for example. Instead, farmers in Kenya grow tea and coffee for export, since they can actually make a living at it, rather than just eke out a subsistence-level existence. This decreases the overall food security of the country until it becomes precarious, with one nudge — such as a drought or other natural disaster — toppling a country into famine.

Hopping back across the Atlantic to South America, many of the aforementioned articles claimed that the sudden commodification of quinoa was having dire consequences in Bolivia and Peru. The Guardian railed against rising prices, land disputes and monocultural cash crops, while NPR cited declining soil productivity and the abandonment of traditional llama herding.

Is it true? Well, sort of. First off, every single article apparently forgot that food prices across the globe have risen (the UN’s food price index claims that cereal prices have doubled since 2006). In Bolivia and Peru, the people who are most impacted by the rising cost of quinoa are urban dwellers, who are already able to have a more diversified diet than the rural poor. The quinoa farmers themselves certainly aren’t going to lack quinoa in their diets, should they choose. Most farmers will set aside a portion of their crop for themselves or for selling or bartering for other goods and services.  Government programs in Bolivia have also started incorporating quinoa into subsidized meals for school children and new mothers.

Slate and Mother Jones pointed out that quinoa is one of the only things that farmers are able to grow on the altiplano region of Peru and Bolivia and that greater cash flow into this region means more economic stability and sovereignty to people who have had very little in the past.

As for land disputes, this letter from a filmmaker documenting agriculture in the Bolivian altiplano explains that most disputes are settled quickly by a governing body of elders called the Jilakatas. Many of the urban transplants that the NPR article mentions are originally from the area, but — like many young people across the globe — left their rural homes for the opportunities that only a city could present. Their return now means that farming could provide them with something beyond a subsistence-level existence.

This is not a bad thing. Quinoa is not just a cash crop for these farmers. It’s still being consumed inside the countries where it’s grown. Nevertheless, in-country consumption of quinoa has declined. Partially, because of rising prices but also because of the gains in economic power that have allowed them to diversify their diets. This economic power had given them a better bargaining position in trade, and quinoa cultivation has thus far been fertile ground for fair trade cooperatives and grassroots organizing.

If quinoa becomes a commodity in the way that maize, canola oil or wheat is, it’s bound to experience some growing pains on the world market, especially if the seed is adapted to grow outside the Andes. However, the underlying issue is one of sovereignty. I think that a lot of the people who buy quinoa have knee-jerk reactions against the word “globalization,” even when they acknowledge that the world that they live in is made possible only through it. Quinoa wasn’t simply “discovered” by Westerners due to accident and food fads. It’s growth has been due in large part to efforts from fair-trade cooperatives and progressive politicians and activists, all of whom had worked to empower farmers and producers.

Right now, there’s no reason not to buy or consume quinoa, but we should know where our food comes from, the route it takes in reaching us and that our consumption has far-reaching consequences. If you take away anything from this brouhaha, take that.

Share this! (You know you want to.)

Got something to say? Say it loud!