By Amy Tan
Earlier in January a sensational article, “Can Vegans Stomach the Unpalatable Truth about Quinoa?”, was released in response to an alleged quinoa shortage in South America, specifically Bolivia--one of the largest South American exporters. It blamed the increasing American demand for pushing quinoa prices up too high for South Americans, particularly Bolivians, to afford purchasing. It’s description of the situation in Bolivia is overdramatically similar to a minor recession--all via quinoa. The article had an extensive impact on American purchasing habits and convinced people to purchase American grown quinoa instead. However, the economic effects of entering the international market, are much more complex than “people are starving.”
This miracle grain of the Ande’s road to fame is an interesting story in itself. These days I average at most five days between quinoa servings; just five years ago I would’ve pronounced the word “quinoa” as “quinn-iowa” and assumed Bolivia to be an Eastern European city. It’s impressive how these tiny grains that contain all nine essential amino acids managed to transition from a minor South American sidecrop, bound to the region by both tradition and climate, to the poster child--or at least kale’s first-choice sidekick--of the healthy American lifestyle. In 2013 Washington University even hosted the first “International Quinoa Research Symposium” to share methodology for quinoa production to pass it’s “natural habitat” in the porous, coastal, high-altitude regions of South America. And this mindset, this priority of spreading anything people what wherever they want it is the source, or perhaps consequence, of the real problem.
Economists have long-ago declared this wave of globalisation to be a socio-economic polarising force--this is news to no one. The quinoa shortage, rather than an isolated problem, is a consequence of our supranational organisations working out kinks as we further transition into a more cooperative planet. And this article, rather than a wake up call for vegans, is a tunnel-vision solution that would leave Bolivian producers with mountains of excess non-cereal.
International trade have made some Bolivians unable to afford quinoa, yes, but has also given its producers a higher standard of living. Some are able to send their children to school for the first time.A parallel can be seen in how the popularity of chocolate keeps cacao farmers in the Republic of Côte d'Ivoire employed, but a chocolate bar out of their budget. Thailand is full of both rice and people who cannot afford it.
So what do we do, with the warring priorities within Bolivia? We buy. If it’s quinoa, if it’s not quinoa anymore, if it was never quinoa, we still buy. Because this is a global, overarching force with ubiquitous reach and if we have learned anything from history it is that individuals cannot act for the population.
Really, though, the market knows best.