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Globalization & Quinoa

Bacchus

TRIBE Promoter
Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?

Ethical consumers should be aware poor Bolivians can no longer afford their staple grain, due to western demand raising prices

A Bolivian woman harvesting quinoa negro. 'Well-intentioned health and ethics-led consumers here [are] unwittingly driving poverty there.' Photograph: George Steinmetz/ George Steinmetz/Corbis
Joanna Blythman

Not long ago, quinoa was just an obscure Peruvian grain you could only buy in wholefood shops. We struggled to pronounce it (it's keen-wa, not qui-no-a), yet it was feted by food lovers as a novel addition to the familiar ranks of couscous and rice. Dieticians clucked over quinoa approvingly because it ticked the low-fat box and fitted in with government healthy eating advice to "base your meals on starchy foods".

Adventurous eaters liked its slightly bitter taste and the little white curls that formed around the grains. Vegans embraced quinoa as a credibly nutritious substitute for meat. Unusual among grains, quinoa has a high protein content (between 14%-18%), and it contains all those pesky, yet essential, amino acids needed for good health that can prove so elusive to vegetarians who prefer not to pop food supplements.

Sales took off. Quinoa was, in marketing speak, the "miracle grain of the Andes", a healthy, right-on, ethical addition to the meat avoider's larder (no dead animals, just a crop that doesn't feel pain). Consequently, the price shot up – it has tripled since 2006 – with more rarified black, red and "royal" types commanding particularly handsome premiums.

But there 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 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. It's beginning to look like a cautionary tale of how a focus on exporting premium foods can damage the producer country's food security. Feeding our apparently insatiable 365-day-a-year hunger for this luxury vegetable, Peru has also cornered the world market in asparagus. Result? In the arid Ica region where Peruvian asparagus production is concentrated, this thirsty export vegetable has depleted the water resources on which local people depend. NGOs report that asparagus labourers toil in sub-standard conditions and cannot afford to feed their children while fat cat exporters and foreign supermarkets cream off the profits. That's the pedigree of all those bunches of pricy spears on supermarket shelves.

Soya, a foodstuff beloved of the vegan lobby as an alternative to dairy products, is another problematic import, one that drives environmental destruction. Embarrassingly, for those who portray it as a progressive alternative to planet-destroying meat, soya production is now one of the two main causes of deforestation in South America, along with cattle ranching, where vast expanses of forest and grassland have been felled to make way for huge plantations.

Three years ago, the pioneering Fife Diet, Europe's biggest local food-eating project, sowed an experimental crop of quinoa. It failed, and the experiment has not been repeated. But the attempt at least recognised the need to strengthen our own food security by lessening our reliance on imported foods, and looking first and foremost to what can be grown, or reared, on our doorstep.

In this respect, omnivores have it easy. Britain excels in producing meat and dairy foods for them to enjoy. However, a rummage through the shopping baskets of vegetarians and vegans swiftly clocks up the food miles, a consequence of their higher dependency on products imported from faraway places. From tofu and tamari to carob and chickpeas, the axis of the vegetarian shopping list is heavily skewed to global.

There are promising initiatives: one enterprising Norfolk company, for instance, has just started marketing UK-grown fava beans (the sort used to make falafel) as a protein-rich alternative to meat. But in 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
Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa? | Joanna Blythman

Read this article this morning, and it really has me torn. There was a point two years ago where I was eating Quinoa 3-4 times a week. we only eat it once a week or so now. i've avoided peruvian asparagus for a while, knowing it's affects.

It really has me thinking though - How can we achieve a sense of balance and responsibility?
 

Spinsah

TRIBE Member
Interesting read.

I wonder what the environmental impact is consuming local beef (methane release, transport, etc.) versus imported quinoa? In terms of socio-economic impact, I believe the choice is clear.
 

Blysspluss

TRIBE Member
Eat local. Period.

That way, yer not screwing over other people, and you're injecting your money into the local agricultural community.

It can also encourage greenhouse type projects, which I have recently found out my town tried to implement using waste heat from our water treatment plant like some other communities have, but there was not enough of a push...so the project fell through.

We also try to buy fresh veggies from the Hutterites(there are a few colonies very nearby) where possible because their communities tend to grow some of the tastiest stuff! (Plus it's incredibly reasonable in price for produce).
 

praktik

TRIBE Member
The locavore movement is interesting and I think its best advice is to support local business - just might be easier to be a locavore in some places vs others, and there is some interesting sociology about it that Andrew Potter has been on about in some recent interviews:

His book is called "The Authenticity Hoax." And I asked him what exactly that means.

Andrew Potter: What it is is, in a sense, a successor form of status display, succeeding the old conspicuous consumption that we're all familiar with. And what has happened, I think over the past 30 or 40 years, there's been a shift in the culture where as we got wealthier, it actually became less socially acceptable to just sort of, like, engage in raw displays of how much wealth you have or what great taste you have. And so we engage in what I call "conspicuous authenticity," displays of consumption or experience that sort of express what a deep person, how spiritual you are.

Vigeland: What are some examples of that?

Potter: Things like volun-tourism or eco-tourism. The idea that you're not just going traveling somewhere; you're going there to actually help out the locals. Or you're going there to help preserve the planet. I think the current fetish for the locavore craze -- local eating, local meat, local produce and so on -- is an expression of that as well. This idea that I'm not the kind of person who shops just to own something. I shop to sort of sustain a local community that matters to me and my kin.

Vigeland: Well, what's wrong with conspicuous authenticity? What's wrong with eco-tourism?

Potter: Oh, there's nothing wrong with it at all. Except, one of the problems is, like all what economists call "positional goods," it's valuable only to the extent to which other people can't really have it. Especially in the food, the locavore movement, one of the most important aspects that people talk about is "I've got this butter, right, that you can't buy in the open market. You need sort of social connections to get it." What I'm trying to point out is that when you wrap up your consumption in a sort of moralizing guise, it ends up sort of being almost a more pernicious form of status-seeking, because it makes it seem like you're actually better than other people and not just simply better connected.​
 
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Spinsah

TRIBE Member
Not that this excuses it, but the headline is a jab at the ethical righteousness of vegans, not us ominvores who eat quinoa because its delicious.
 

Blysspluss

TRIBE Member
I can see where it might be a "you need special connections to buy this" in some areas.

Not here. Everybody knows everybody. And the Hutterites in particular will sell to anybody as far as I know...so there's none of that.

And in terms of beef, there's lots of folks who go in on buying a portion of a cow, or are selling one. All local...grazed in nearby land. It's delicious. I don't know that the carbon footprint of how cows are raised here is as nasty as I've seen in many studies, either, where the subject is the corn-fed US beef.
 

acheron

TRIBE Member
not much point in trying to be a localvore in a metropolitan environment. You might think you're making a difference but really you're just engaging in a bit of elitist urbanism. The economics of large cities make local sourcing completely impractical. Our surrounding farms and resources simply can't meet the demand that several million people exert every single day. By the same token, living together in large clumps like this is infinitely more efficient than having us all spread out living in the countryside.
 
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praktik

TRIBE Member
In the You Are Not So Smart interview he highlights the experience of an artist community in New York that started complaining because of the screams they were hearing all the time coming from the nearby slaughterhouse -> this is one of issues w/ local food in a big city, people don't realize the kind of things that will be right next to you if you are going to truly achieve "locality" in your food sourcing...

But - totally a digression from quinoa and Blysspluss, definitely coming from a social science angle here and don't pretend that my own self-identity isn't informed (on some level) by some of the same kind of drives that Andrew is identifying. (ie, the books I read or articles I link showing everybody how thoughtful I am, etc). No one is free from the self-identity burnishment drive..;)
 

MoFo

TRIBE Member
I have a friend who is now a certified organic farmer with a plot of land in North York where numerous businesses and individual farmers also own plots. They treat it as a community and it's all hunky dory and yes, they do produce amazing crops at incredible prices (compared to most organic distributors but not compared to No Frills obviously). I try to buy produce from her from time to time. It's an interesting dynamic as there are a few issues that I've noticed that have come out of her decision to take a more ethical career path....

1. Access. I don't always buy from her because her delivery area just isn't big enough yet. So there's demand from even her friends but the act delivering will require lots of driving and the purchasing of gas on a consistent basis, not to mention the purchase of a bigger gas guzzling vehicle. Or she can find a distributor that will ultimately drive around the city with their vans/trucks, creating more smog and guzzling more fuel.

2. Inclusiveness. The farmers markets she frequents don't really market to low income families and to be honest, low income families can't afford even her reduced prices compared to buying from say, Freshco or Chinatown.

3. Demographics. So the poor can't buy organic so who's left? The affluent. Families with lots of disposable income and successful corporate people who can afford to treat themselves with "better" produce. So in the end, she's catering to the consumers who she loathes to maintain her profits.

4. Restaurants. Great, so a chef with these sensibilities will buy her bok choy but will then wilt 3 of them under a piece of duck and charge $28 for the dish. Yay. Again, the customer she loathes.

The one demographic I think she can be happy about is the downtown urban conscious consumer who is looking for alternatives. So an individual who will aim to reduce the amount of non-local produce he/she's purchasing by walking or using public transit to get to the farmers market to purposely patron her stall.
 

JoshuaReid

TRIBE Member
Eat local. Period.

That way, yer not screwing over other people, and you're injecting your money into the local agricultural community.

It can also encourage greenhouse type projects, which I have recently found out my town tried to implement using waste heat from our water treatment plant like some other communities have, but there was not enough of a push...so the project fell through.

We also try to buy fresh veggies from the Hutterites(there are a few colonies very nearby) where possible because their communities tend to grow some of the tastiest stuff! (Plus it's incredibly reasonable in price for produce).
Serious question here: As someone who lives in the downtown core of TO, where exactly can I buy local produce? I'm saying this out of complete ignorance as I always just hit up No Frills/Loblaws/Metro for mine. If I knew of a proper place to buy local, I would probably make more of an effort. (Meat is excluded from this as I know lots of butchershops)
 

acheron

TRIBE Member
just as an aside, if anyone here remembers the report I posted here about a tour I took at a local meat processor (400 head of cattle a day, within Toronto's city limits, supplies the major food retailers in the GTA), they sourced their cattle from south ontario, with small amounts coming from the US during high volume periods. That would mean, essentially, that much of the red meat sold in Toronto is in fact sourced "locally".
 

MoFo

TRIBE Member
Serious question here: As someone who lives in the downtown core of TO, where exactly can I buy local produce? I'm saying this out of complete ignorance as I always just hit up No Frills/Loblaws/Metro for mine. If I knew of a proper place to buy local, I would probably make more of an effort. (Meat is excluded from this as I know lots of butchershops)
Where do you live?
Farmers markets all over the place including Metro Hall's square.
St. Lawrence Market, lots of place on Danforth.
 
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derek

TRIBE Member
just as an aside, if anyone here remembers the report I posted here about a tour I took at a local meat processor (400 head of cattle a day, within Toronto's city limits, supplies the major food retailers in the GTA), they sourced their cattle from south ontario, with small amounts coming from the US during high volume periods. That would mean, essentially, that much of the red meat sold in Toronto is in fact sourced "locally".
pigs too. the slaughter house is still down off bathurst.
 

octo

TRIBE Member
last night i told my mom about the quinoa conundrum.

she's been on the quinoa bandwagon ever since her and my dad went on a trip to peru and boliva a few years ago.

i told her she's hurting fellow latinos and i'm not eating her quinoa anymore (i don't like it). so then she passed me the bokchoy and said "have some bokchoy, it's good for you" and i said "NO! isn't it enough that you're hurting the bolivians! now you're hurting the chinese!! i'll have no part in this" (i hate bokchoy).

she told me to be early for family dinner on Friday. i said "i'll come if there's ribs"
 

octo

TRIBE Member
my dad's contribution to the converstation,

"did you know that Boliva is landlocked but yet they have a Navy!"
 
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octo

TRIBE Member
i dunno. i was just pushing my mom's buttons and using it as an excuse to pass on the bokchoy
 

MoFo

TRIBE Member
just as an aside, if anyone here remembers the report I posted here about a tour I took at a local meat processor (400 head of cattle a day, within Toronto's city limits, supplies the major food retailers in the GTA), they sourced their cattle from south ontario, with small amounts coming from the US during high volume periods. That would mean, essentially, that much of the red meat sold in Toronto is in fact sourced "locally".
I don't think the local part is the issue for people who can afford to get good beef. It sometimes even says it's Ontario beef on the package. But people want grass fed most likely if they're going to seek out local beef on purpose, no?

Just like how organic can still mean it's grown outside of Canada. I'm willing to bet that people would choose grass fed/organice over local/local if given the choice.

And then there are the dumbasses who think local just means grass fed/organic without knowing there are slaughterhouses/pesticide-ridden farms in Ontario.
 
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