Quinoa’s quagmire

One-sided Guardian article incites media scare

A slanted post about the quinoa craze set off a cascade of reproachful media warnings last week, telling consumers that by eating the grain-like vegetable they are hurting people in the Andean region where most of it is grown.

The article, by The Guardian’s Joanna Blythman, drew upon reports that quinoa’s popularity in the Western world has made it unaffordable in parts of Bolivia and Peru where it was once a dietary staple, raising concerns about malnutrition in some places. “In fact,” Blythman wrote, “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.”

And such was the simplistic story uncritically echoed by the likes of Andrew Sullivan and The Globe and Mail, which chose the censorious headline, “The more you love quinoa, the more you hurt Peruvians and Bolivians.”

But there’s more to it.

The shortsightedness of Blythman’s piece is surprising, given that it jumps off from a much more comprehensive one that The Guardian had published just two days earlier. That article, by Dan Collyns, addressed the concerns about malnutrition (and disputes over farming in the Andes, which have also become an issue), but added some important context.

Quinoa has enriched many Bolivians, and while the government reported in 2011 that local consumption had declined 34 percent, quinoa’s price, which had tripled, was only part of the reason for the drop. As incomes increased, many people simply switched to processed, Western-style foods. The primary worry is about children in poor parts of the country. Bolivia cut chronic malnutrition in children under five from 22.9 percent in 2005 to 16.5 percent in 2011, but it remains higher in rural, Andean regions, and there is a broad effort underway to resolve the problem. According to Collyns:

This year is the UN’s International Year of Quinoa as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation recognises the crop’s resilience, adaptability and its ‘potential contribution in the fight against hunger and malnutrition.’

… the Bolivian government - which like its neighbour Peru is heavily promoting quinoa nationally to combat malnutrition - insists Bolivians are eating more of the grain. Annual consumption per person has increased fourfold from 0.35kg to 1.11 kg in as many years “in spite of the high international prices,” Victor Hugo Vásquez, Bolivia’s vice-minister for rural development and agriculture, said.

Following Blythman’s piece, Mother Jones’s food reporter Tom Philpott attempted to put quinoa lovers at ease with a helpful article headlined, “Quinoa: Good, Evil, or Just Really Complicated?” And he took a fair jab at the condescending headline of Blythman’s piece—“Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?”—by pointing out that it isn’t just vegans who enjoy it.

Not only did Blythman’s article encourage a bunch of equally blinkered copycat posts (and a concerned question on Quora), she also provoked ill-informed responses that rushed to the other side of judgment about the situation in the Andes. Criticizing what he called “the killer-quinoa meme,” The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders wrote:

The people of the Altiplano are indeed among the poorest in the Americas. But their economy is almost entirely agrarian. They are sellers - farmers or farm workers seeking the highest price and wage. The quinoa price rise is the greatest thing that has happened to them.

Responding to the polarity in the coverage, Marc Bellemare, an agricultural economist at Duke University, suggested that the problem is not so much with Western foodies as it is with journalists:

Indeed, it is impossible to know who is right and who is wrong between Blythman and Saunders without knowing the answers to a number of questions:

  1. 1. Are most households in the Altiplano net buyers or net sellers of quinoa, or are they autarkic relative to it? Knowing the answer to that question would be a good first step toward assessing the welfare impacts of a quinoa price increase.

  2. 2. Do net seller households produce under contract, as part of a quinoa value chain, or do they sell to processors on the spot market? Knowing the answer to that question would allow knowing whether producers are insured against price risk.

  3. 3. Is it possible to store quinoa for a relatively long period? Knowing the answer to that question would allow us to tell whether people can avoid the “sell low, buy high” cycle by which many smallholders in developing countries are rendered poorer than they need to be.

Such detailed information has been lacking in the coverage of the quinoa market’s impact on the Andes. Nonetheless, there has been some well-balanced reporting in the last few years. NPR did one of the first such piece in January 2011, followed by The New York Times in March of that year and Time in April 2012.

And that coverage has, in turn, prompted a lot of interesting online discussion about the finer points of the situation between agricultural scientists and international development workers. As we’ve seen with crops from coffee to soy, a spike in global demand can have many negative impacts on the areas that cultivate them.

So far, the problems in the Andes seem relatively mild, but they’re there. As Philpott put it, “That doesn’t mean we should stop eating quinoa; it just means we shouldn’t eat quinoa without thinking it through.” Likewise, journalists shouldn’t stop covering the problems there, they should just stop covering them without… well, you know the rest.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , , ,