Traditional quinoa farmer, Bolivia (via)
So, the three big controversies of January 2013 are: 1. Gun control, 2. Quinoa and 3. That guy’s fake, Internet girlfriend. Since nothing more (for now) can possibly be said about gun control--and there’s nothing really controversial about fake girlfriends--this is our chance to sort out the quinoa situation, and determine, once and for all, if quinoa is a fun, ethical dish or a guilty, hateful pleasure grain of sin.
What is this stuff, anyway?
Cooked up like rice, quinoa is a pseudo-grain that has been grown in the Andes Mountains of Peru and Bolivia for 7,000 years. In the last decade, it has really caught on with health-food fans in the US and Europe. Vegetarians and vegans are particularly drawn to quinoa because it is really high in protein and iron and has all 10 essential amino acids.
So what’s the problem?
It’s a classic supply and demand issue. There’s more demand for quinoa, and the supply hasn’t yet adjusted. Quinoa grows under pretty extreme circumstances—high in the Andes, in arid soil—but it doesn’t do so well in more traditional growing situations, such as, say, Nebraska. While Americans who like their food meatless AND local can yearn for domestic quinoa production—maybe even one day, quinoa independence--they’re stuck relying on the limited, South American supply. So since 2006, the price of quinoa has tripled.
The Guardian pointed this out recently in a masterful bit of link baiting, but put the article under the headline “Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?” and accused vegans of driving the price of quinoa up so high that Bolivians can no longer afford to buy it.
Well, shit. And those vegans really get off on how ethically they eat, don’t they?
Some do. That’s why it was such masterful link baiting.
Are they starving the poor Bolivians?
Here’s what we know: We know that the price of quinoa is up, and we know that quinoa consumption in Bolivia is down. But as Slate, under the headline “It’s Okay to Eat Quinoa” pointed out, this is actually a good thing for the farmers who sell quinoa. It’s a boom crop!
A few days before putting out the vegan hit-piece, the Guardian wrote about the upside to quinoa: “In 2012 Peru banked nearly $35m from quinoa exports, tripling what it earned three years ago. In Bolivia exports tripled to around 23,000 tonnes, contributing some $85m to the country's economy.”
Quinoa-peanut salad at Amber Dhara, San Francisco. Isn't it just quaint? (via)
Awesome. So, ethically, it’s a good thing to eat quinoa?
Well, in a move that can only be called “Pulling A Slate,” Slate’s article had a headline that seemed to be contrary, while the article itself basically confirmed the conventional wisdom. Higher quinoa prices might be good for people who sell quinoa, but consumers of quinoa are going to have to pay more. This means the urban poor in Bolivia and Peru are going to buy less quinoa. In Peru’s capital, Lima, it’s cheaper to buy chicken.
Also, if quinoa stays profitable, more and more land will be devoted to growing it, and growing too much of one crop in one area is called a monoculture and is terrible for the land. It’s too early to say what the environmental impact of quinoa’s popularity will be, but the early signs—you’ll be happy to know—are bad. Pushing quinoa production has lead to more erosion and strains on the supply of water and llama-based fertilizer. As land becomes more valuable, Bolivians are fighting over it, literally. Last February, farmers fought over land with kidnapping, and dynamite.
So if the Bolivians can’t have it, I guess I shouldn’t either, huh?
This is a tricky question, because it’s not totally clear that Bolivians really want to eat quinoa. As their profits have risen, quinoa farmers have eaten less and less quinoa.
“They have westernised their diets because they have more profits and more income," Paola Mejia, an agronomist and general manager of Bolivia's Chamber of Quinoa Real and Organic Products Exporters, told The Guardian. “Ten years ago they had only an Andean diet in front of them. They had no choice. But now they do and they want rice, noodles, candies, coke, they want everything!"
It’s also possible to look at this from the opposite side, and say that what’s happening is that quinoa is too valuable to eat and must be sold.
Sure, it always seems like sort of a bummer when people leave traditional ways when money comes in, but that attitude is sort of condescending. More profits free up farmers to buy fortified wheat products, which are healthy and cheaper, and they can then spend the rest of the money sending their children to medical school, like a farmer in a 2011 NPR story did.
Ugh. This human thing is complicated. It’s environmentally bad though? Fuck it. No quinoa. I’m getting a burger.
Yeah, it’d be great if it were that simple, huh? As PETA points out, a meat diet is way harder on the environment, and also leads to higher grain prices, since those cattle have to eat something.
Damn it. So I should wait until domestic quinoa production gets going and then buy local?
I guess. Unless the US grows a shit ton of quinoa, so much that it exports it back to Peru and Bolivia where it drives the price down and drives the previously-poor-but-now-wealthier mountain farmers back to poverty, while the urban poor still eat imported white rice and noodles. It seems like that will probably happen, doesn’t it?
So what you're saying is that everything is terrible?
At least a little bit. If you want to be an ethical consumer, you have to prioritize.
Soy it is.