Published on Friday, February 15, 2013 by Common Dreams
Quinoa: To Buy or Not to Buy… Is This the Right Question?
We’ve been hearing a lot about quinoa lately. While US consumers prize it as a delicious ‘super-food,’ there is growing anxiety about the impact of the quinoa boom in the Andes, and particularly Bolivia, the world’s top producing country. The media has focused primarily on the fact that global demand is driving up the price of quinoa, placing it beyond the reach of poor Bolivians—even of quinoa farmers themselves—leaving them to consume nutritionally vacuous, but cheap, refined wheat products such as bread and pasta. By this logic, some suggest, northern consumers should boycott the ‘golden grain’ to depress its price and make it accessible once again.
Others point out that the impoverished farmers of Bolivia’s highlands are at long last getting a fair price for their crop—one of the few crops adapted to their arid, high altitude environment. In this view, global markets are finally “working” for peasants, and a consumer boycott would only hurt the hemisphere’s poorest farmers.
In short, the debate has largely been reduced to the invisible hand of the marketplace, in which the only options for shaping our global food system are driven by (affluent) consumers either buying more or buying less. It’s the same logic that makes us feel like we’ve done our civic duty by buying a pound of fair trade coffee. This isn’t to dismiss the many benefits of fair trade or other forms of ethical consumption, but the so-called quinoa quandary demonstrates the limits of consumption-driven politics. Because whichever way you press the lever (buy more/buy less) there are bound to be negative consequences, particularly for poor farmers in the Global South. To address the problem we have to analyze the system itself, and the very structures that constrain consumer and producer choices.
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