The Guardian’s quinoa kerfuffle

A Bolivian farmer in her quinoa field. Photo by Bioversity International/S. Padulosi via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Last summer I posted about how the rising popularity of quinoa, the South American protein-rich grain, was making it hard for farmers in Peru and Bolivia to afford the traditional foodstuff. More recently, I posted about how quinoa farms are coming to the United States. These issues and more got some attention in the last couple weeks in The Guardian.

It kicked off with a piece from Joanna Blythman with the provocative headline, “Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?” She writes,

The appetite of countries such as ours for this grain has pushed up prices to such an extent that poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom it was once a nourishing staple food, can no longer afford to eat it. Imported junk food is cheaper. In Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken. Outside the cities, and fuelled by overseas demand, the pressure is on to turn land that once produced a portfolio of diverse crops into quinoa monoculture. In fact, the quinoa trade is yet another troubling example of a damaging north-south exchange, with well-intentioned health and ethics-led consumers here unwittingly driving poverty there….

[I]n the case of quinoa, there’s a ghastly irony when the Andean peasant’s staple grain becomes too expensive at home because it has acquired hero product status among affluent foreigners preoccupied with personal health, animal welfare and reducing their carbon “foodprint”. Viewed through a lens of food security, our current enthusiasm for quinoa looks increasingly misplaced.

Given the tone of the piece, it’s no surprise that vegans and conscientious omnivores responded forcefully. Mimi Bekhechi, Associate Director of PETA UK, had her say last week. Her post opens this way:

It is ironic that in the wake of the Tesco horse burger scandal, writer Joanna Blythman would attempt to scare us off healthy crops such as quinoa and portray meat eaters as eco heroes. Our burgers and bangers hold their share of dark secrets – and they don’t just lie in the origin of the animals whose flesh is ground up and extruded into patties and links, although those secrets are plenty dark enough. They also lie in the tremendous waste and environmental havoc wreaked by the meat industry.

Bolivian villagers aren’t the only ones faced with the prospect of going hungry. It is estimated that more than 850 million people worldwide do not have enough to eat. But the solution to this crisis does not lie in abstaining from quinoa (whose meteoric rise in popularity cannot be attributed solely to vegans, many of whom have never touched the stuff) and other healthy vegan foods. According to Worldwatch, it is animal agriculture that is the real villain because meat consumption is an inefficient use of grain – the grain is used more efficiently when consumed directly by humans. Growth in meat output requires feeding grain to animals, creating competition for grain between affluent meat eaters and the world’s poor.

A few days later, Tom Philpott of Mother Jones weighed in. I’m a big Philpott fan, and he doesn’t disappoint here. If you only read one of the three pieces, I suggest his, which tackles the quinoa question with care and recognizes the complexity in all our modern eating choices. As he puts it,

So can people like me, who prefer to avoid foods that are environmentally and socially destructive, eat it with a clear conscience? Not entirely. In a short period of time, quinoa has gone from a local staple to a global commodity. “When you transform a food into a commodity, there’s inevitable breakdown in social relations and high environmental cost,” as Tanya Kerssen, an analyst for Oakland-based Food First told Time last year.

But that doesn’t mean we should stop eating quinoa; it just means we shouldn’t eat quinoa without thinking it through.

Head here for his full piece.

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One comment

  1. Little Sis

    I agree with you – Tom Philpott is so thoughtful and far more willing than most to be honest about the complexity of an issue. I think far too often folks see the complexity talk as a kind of waffling/unwillingness to take a side, but surely it’s the most mature perspective in a complex world. Thanks for sharing!

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