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Against the Global Grain: The Lesson of Quinoa's Incredible Popularity

You there. With the quinoa. You're vegan, right?

You there. With the quinoa. You're vegan, right? You're starving Bolivians. Go take a long walk off a short pier, it'll do the world a bit of good.

That's the message of a column over at the Guardian today. The title: Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?

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.


Here's the thing. I saw this and kind of moved on with my day, dismissing it as a rehashing of old news but with a weirdly gleeful anti-veganism.

But this one, for whatever reason, made the rounds, and so I'm forced to write this post, very much against my will because I agree with some of the substance but find the style totally offensive.

The issues pointed out in the column are not invalid. There are sustainable ways to grow a business that involve taking into account scarcity and the populations that produce key ingredients, and it appears that the quinoa industry and Bolivia haven't employed them. We in the U.S. know plenty about that.

But this issue is way more complex than vegans starving Bolivians.

Why vegans?

I really hope the author wasn't responsible for the headline. It reads like an exploitation of real and complex global economic issues, greatly simplified for the payoff of giving vegans the finger. I'm not vegan. In fact, I'm only mostly vegetarian. But a friend put it well when I discussed the column with her via chat:

"Why do vegans have to carry this burden? I'm not vegan. I eat tons of quinoa. And CHIKIN."

The carbon footprint

One of the issues raised is that quinoa has a large carbon footprint because it must travel a great distance. But given that high levels of quinoa consumption are relatively new and it takes a bit of time to react to agricultural trends, we shouldn't be totally surprised if, in short order, the demand will likely result in increased production even in non-Andean nations.

"We're going to see quinoa being grown all over the place soon," predicts Kevin Murphy, a Washington State University grain breeder who has spent several years developing quinoa varieties suited to America's diverse geography and climates. Murphy says it's already clear that quinoa can flourish and produce high yields in many parts of North America, and he sees "no reason why quinoa production won't take off in the next few years."


It's also really, really silly to go after vegans and carbon footprint in the same piece. We know that very smart people say there could be dire consequences for maintaining the world's current trends in meat consumption, but cutting out dairy, too, eliminates yet another huge source of emissions.

In another weird jab, this time at vegetarians, the author departs momentarily from quinoa to also mention that, "Embarrassingly, for those who portray it as a progressive alternative to planet-destroying meat, soy 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." But embarrassingly, she fails to mention that soy is also harvested as livestock feed and ingredients in biodiesel—which is to say that while deforestation is a very real issue, pinning the problem on human vegetarians is misleading.

What it means

This is an example of widespread "ethical" eating decisions—if that's what we're attributing it to—having a real effect on global production. That is to say: So many people are eating a healthy food that they are driving up the demand for it, which means more people will grow it and make a living off of selling it and it will become more common and so more people will eat it.

It's also a symptom of globalization generally. It's far too complex for me to rebut in a blog post—or to have been addressed so flippantly in a column, where a story in the same publication just two days before had done a better job of it.

It raised the real issues and put them into compelling context. Some diets in Bolivia have probably been changed forever. The issues that led to that, though, are really not limited to an increased demand for quinoa. They're geopolitical.

Quinoa photo via Flickr (cc) user avlxyz.

Cow photo via Flickr (cc) user blumblaum.

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