Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Quinoa

Here’s why you aren’t as worldly as you think you are.

I know it’s another article guilting you into snubbing yet another thing. First it was fair trade coffee, then it was organics, lately it has been meat, and now it’s quinoa.

The problem comes down to economics. The pesky model of supply and demand does very interesting things in world markets. Increasing globalization affects more than just the buyer and the seller. But why quinoa? According to the latest article in Time, “the gluten-free staple is produced solely by small-scale farmers and 90% is organic.” That’s hipster heaven.

If you eat quinoa give yourself a little pat on the back for supporting small farmers and healthy farming practices. Also give yourself a pat on the back for alleviating poverty for these small farmers because you have increased demand—and therefore prices—dramatically. These farmers are making tons of money. Anyone buying quinoa is single-handedly bringing Bolivian high altitude farmers out of the third world.

I mean, “the price of quinoa has tripled in the past five years, to $1 per lb., a boon to growers in the poorest region of South America’s poorest country.” According to the article the farmers can buy real farming equipment like tractors now.

Now, stop patting yourself on the back and strap in. What is quinoa’s role in the country? Well, it’s traditionally been a staple for the poorest people in the country. It’s eaten instead of rice because they can’t afford rice. And it’s known as “comida para los indios” or food for the Indians. Indians in most South American countries are basically the bottom rung economically. So that means that quinoa is the cheapest food for the poorest people. They have no other food sources.

Imagine yourself as an indio for a moment. You are poor, and all you can afford for you and your family is quinoa. For years you have bought just enough to keep your family healthy. Lately, the price for quinoa has tripled and now you can barely afford it at all. You have been pushed out of the market for your only staple food and now have to compensate by purchasing another good or simply eat less. And there are no cheap substitutes for quinoa. So the answer is the only choice left—you eat less. While farmers become empowered to serve their SoCal Fad Dieters, you are left only with hunger.

Ultimately, it’s not inherently bad to buy quinoa. In fact, all of the positive economic effects could potentially help develop these South American countries and reduce their poverty levels. As it stands, fair trade programs have targeted a staple food—which reacts far differently than a luxury good like coffee—in the local economy. This has vast and far reaching consequences that ask us not simply to buy based on labels or perceived benefits, but rather to fully inform oneself to the entire context.

Food, of all things, is sacred and all should have a right to it. In trying to give people more economic freedom, we have perhaps taken away their right to food. It requires no malice to do harm to another human, only willing ignorance.