The Quinoa Challenge (and Other Food Dilemmas)
An interesting report in the Guardian last week highlighted the implications of the increasing global demand for quinoa. The story notes that as demand for Quinua real (royal quinoa) has increased, Bolivian consumers, for whom the grain is a traditional staple, have been priced out of the market.
Interest in quinoa has spiked in recent years. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization named 2013 the International Year of Quinoa. The organization noted quinoa’s promise as a grain for the poor, observing that it grows well in harsh, high-altitude environments and salty soils. It has also been embraced by foodies in the global north as a nutritious (and trendy) crop.
Meanwhile, increased demand for the crop in the global north has driven prices out of reach for the average Bolivian. Prices have tripled since 2006, and, as a result, Peruvians and Bolivians who have traditionally consumed quinoa are now forced to turn to imported junk food as a cheaper alternative. As the Guardian’s coverage noted,
“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.”
The environmental consequences of such trends are also severe. As global demand for quinoa increases, more land comes under cultivation, and production is intensified, increasing reliance on chemical inputs and reducing local agricultural biodiversity that traditionally served as a form of informal crop insurance.
The broader question, though, is one of political agency and efficacy. By casting the problem of hunger in the frame of “food security,” agency for addressing the problem is cast aside. Hunger becomes a technical problem that can be addressed through greater integration into global markets. Indeed, US policy historically promoted marketization as a key element of food security, believing that developing countries would be better off if they relied on food imports from the United States rather than local production for domestic consumption. This model, of course, is built around a whole host of assumptions, the implications of which too often play out with ghastly consequences. Food sovereignty, not food security, should be the goal of food policy.