Quinoa, Commodities, and the Gentrification of the Food System

There was a time when quinoa was a staple food for poor people in Peru and Bolivia. But as the protein-rich grain becomes more popular in rich countries, that's changing. Prices have more than tripled since 2006—in part due to sites like ours posting about everything from organic quinoa vodka to warmed Greek quinoa salad. This agricultural gold rush has caused quinoa it to become unaffordable to many who previously relied on it.

That story isn't entirely new -- Jess Root reported on the darker side of the quinoa boom for TreeHugger in 2011, but a recent story by Joanna Blythman in The Guardian -- despite an unnecessarily combative and vegan-bashing title -- explores how a commodified food culture and a global health food industry's search for the next fad can leave local food systems profoundly disrupted:

...[T]here is an unpalatable truth to face for those of us with a bag of quinoa in the larder. 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 fueled by overseas demand, the pressure is on to turn land that once produced a portfolio of diverse crops into quinoa monoculture.

Blythman goes on to document how other runaway successes in agriculture have had unintended (or unattended?) consequences: Soy farming in China and the Amazon is causing dust bowls and deforestation, for example, while year-round asparagus production in Peru is leading to water shortages and labor abuses. Blythman's attacks on vegans are way off-base -- meat eaters such as myself eat quinoa, too, and soy production is largely aimed at feeding the meat and dairy industry; The Guardian itself published a follow-up counterpoint article today, by Mimi Bekhechi, pointing out that meat production is far more costly to the environment and the poor than quinoa is. However, Blythman does have a point that any attempt at building a truly sustainable food economy must include an understanding of the macro-impacts of the commodification of our food.

Meanwhile, over at the Globe and Mail, Doug Saunders points out that the quinoa boom is an unabaited success story, that locavorism is just silly Western snobbery, and that quinoa was deliberately grown as an export crop that has helped regional farmers rise out of poverty.

Blythman, Bekhechi, and Saunders all have a grain (sorry) of truth to their arguments. Just as the rehabilitation of derelict inner-city properties brings with it both the problems of gentrification and the promise of urban renewal, so too the idea of a global food trade raises the potential for both economic empowerment and further exploitation of marginalized communities. Maybe we'd all be better off with more rooftop farms and inner-city aquaponics feeding our economies closer to home, but I suspect we'll still be trading things that can't be grown near us for some time to come. And while rapid fluctuations in staple-food crop prices are potentially problematic, it's hard to deny that increased income in predominantly agrarian communities will bring with it benefits, too.

From Fair Trade organic quinoa production to sensible economic measures that ensure benefits for all, there's much that businesses, policy makers, and consumers alike can do to ensure equity and the common good are served alongside our exotic grains. (As one commenter on The Guardian noted, we could start by challenging U.S. agricultural subsidies that play a role in distorting markets and making imported fast foods so cheap.) Above all else, the quinoa controversy is a useful reminder that nothing is ever simple.

Quinoa, Commodities, and the Gentrification of the Food System
Demand for quinoa in developed countries means agrarian people in Bolivia and Peru can't afford the one-time staple crop. Is that entirely bad news? The answer is complicated.

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