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 is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.