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Sunday, January 27, 2013

Eating Quinoa is not Colonialism

One of my children forwarded me a piece from the UK's Guardian assailing "vegans" and other "food lovers" for consuming ... quinoa.  The "unpalatable truth", as the author sees it, is that foreign demand has pushed up the price to such an extent that poorer persons in Peru and Bolivia, where most of it is grown,  allegedly can no longer afford it, and must replace it with chicken and other "imported junk food".  And the "food miles" it represents are also problematic.  The author sighs that "the quinoa trade is yet another troubling example of a damaging north-south exchange". 

The article elicited a response from PETA, which the Guardian paraphrases as "Eating quinoa may harm Bolivian farmers but eating meat harms us all."

A focus, like the author’s (or PETA's for that matter), on the moral aspects of diet may be well-intentioned but so often the degree of scrutiny tends to become so obsessive that it frankly becomes as unhealthy and antisocial as the practices it criticizes.  Eating is an activity that billions of people engage in multiple times a day.  To subject that amount of human activity to perpetual moral inquisition, scolding and flagellation is a degree of intrusion and control associated mainly with immorally oppressive regimes.
I decided to investigate the author’s complaints.  (The first thing I noticed is that articles on this subject tend to crop up in the northern winter, leading me to wonder if there were any mixed motives in reporting on developments in the southern hemisphere at that time). When I looked at the links that were embedded in the article, I found that they really didn't support her claims that strongly.  Her only source for them was an article from her own newspaper, which indeed indicated that quinoa was more expensive than chicken in Lima, but did not indicate whether anyone was worse off for that.  Among the contrary evidence in the article was a statement that "the crop has become a lifeline for the people of Bolivia's Oruro and Potosi regions, among the poorest in what is one of South America's poorest nations."  [It should be noted that, while Bolivia is relatively poor within South America, its people have higher per capita income than many other nations, for example, Vietnam ]   Evo Morales — the leader of Bolivia, a socialist and an ally of Hugo Chavez — is quoted to say "For years [quinoa] was looked down on just like the indigenous movement.  To remember that past is to remember discrimination against quinoa ...."  So one socialist thinks eating quinoa is inclusive and progressive!  And the UN has declared 2013 "the year of quinoa", and the UN is never on the side of oppression.
The news article also says that quinoa generated $120 million in trade surplus for the two nations, triple what they earned from it three years earlier.  There was absolutely no evidence in the article to support the Guardian's characterization of exporters as “fat cats” (any editor who allows an article to be published using the cliche “fat cat” should be fired, by the way) or its claim that supermarkets  were "creaming off the profits".  The profit margins of large supermarkets are notoriously low; they really do “make it up on volume”.

A Time article from 2012 contradicts those allegations:  "’We worked hard to keep quinoa out of the hands of middlemen,’ says [quinoa growers’ association] general secretary Ciprian Mayorga …. Strong growers' unions have also kept multinational agro companies at bay. Production remains family based, average plots range from 1 to 15 hectares (2.5 to 37 acres).”  Quinoa is “produced by small-scale Andean farmers … who reap direct benefits of its international popularity. Recently, those benefits have skyrocketed: quinoa's price has tripled since 2006, triggering a boom in the poorest region of South America's poorest country.” 

I came across an NPR article from two years ago quotes a Bolivian farmer who, they say, belongs to an organic farming cooperative that sells to Whole Foods and Trader Joe's,  that quinoa is changing the lives of its farmers for the better.  "’Before people didn't go to study,’ he says. ‘They were born, they grew up, and that was it. They went on to herd sheep and llamas. Nothing more. Now people here, we think about doing something with our lives.’ Thanks to his earnings from quinoa, Choquetopa's oldest daughter is now in medical school.”  Time quotes one farmer saying “Now we've got tractors for our fields and parabolic antennas for our homes…” and another saying “Seventy percent of the region's high school graduates can now afford to attend university, … ‘thanks to quinoa.’"

The spokesman for Bolivian quinoa exporters, whose views may be taken with a grain of salt, as he is hardly unbiased, is quoted in the Guardian saying of the farmers:  "They have westernized their diets because they have more profits and more income.  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."   And another source "who runs a quinoa farming collective" "agrees" with him.
Even if one assumes that a “Westernized” diet including cookies and coke is not a good thing for the Bolivian quinoa farmers, “more profits and more income” and more “choice” for what is characterized as one of the poorest regions in South America would seem to be good things.  So how are the good and bad to be balanced?  To conclude that consumers must stop eating quinoa because the farmers are using the proceeds of their sales in ways that we find suboptimal seems to be a very paternalistic judgment for people living thousands of miles away who have never lived the farmers' lives to make.  Also, which is more oppressive, paying poor farmers a fair trade price for their crops and letting them spend it as they see fit, or reducing their income, which they seem to be trying very hard to increase?  What other options does someone growing crops 10,000 feet above sea level have to better their lives materially?

This to me is not a moral dilemma, because there are multiple benefits and multiple costs arising from the increase in quinoa demand.  There is no moral scale on which multiple kinds of costs and benefits can all be weighed and no moral unit by which they can all be compared with each other.  To fit this into a simple moral prism, you have to blind yourself to some portion of the facts, be they the costs or the benefits.  And I don’t think disregard of fact is a morally defensible stance.
Rather, this is to me a simple story about development economics: new information brings the developed world's attention to a commodity available in a less-developed nation; demand goes up;  supply is somewhat constrained over the short-term, so its price goes up; and the growers in the less-developed nation quickly get richer, which leads them to buy things they want, which for whatever reason tends to have a high proportion of “Western” items.  This isn’t the first time this has happened in the last half-century.  There seems to be plenty of empirical evidence that this is how lots of people want to behave, that people don't want to live forever in a life of agrarian poverty.  I struggle to see how one could adamantly claim that poor farmers would be better off getting less money for their crops, that poverty is better for them because they will just spend the extra money suboptimally.  Frankly, if that were the case, then all "fair trade" would be morally reproachable; this is just a specific example of that general theme. 

Over time, other sources of supply ought to respond to the price signal being sent by quinoa buyers, and the resulting opportunity for profits, and a balance should arise in supply and demand.  In an article two months ago, NPR also reported that US farmers and grain breeders "are making a real effort to begin growing the crop here.  To date, it has been difficult and only one farm in the Rockies has done so while some say the Andean products are much better tasting.  But now grain breeders in the US believe they have developed some varieties better suited to the lower altitudes of North America and a quinoa industry will soon boom".  So the price signal is working, and bringing more supply to the global market to meet the demand.  If you think that quinoa prices should be driven downward and that this will benefit South American farmers even though they will have less money, then I guess you should be happy about this. 

One hopes that the Bolivian – Peruvian growers will make sound decisions about land management to sustain their role in the market and also that their health systems will effectively educate their own people on the dietary benefits of their local crop.  I imagine their own governments, the UN and other NGO’s can provide assistance in these respects.  The articles I have linked here contain some evidence of that going on.  I could even imagine those nations imposing Pigovian taxes (fat taxes, carb taxes, etc.) on the supposedly undesirable competing foodstuffs to diminish the price differential vs. quinoa.  But helping the Bolivian and Peruvian quinoa growers to hold on to and manage improving prosperity should be the concern of the socially conscious food consumer, not returning them to a condition of poverty out of an overzealous sense of morality.