“An Unpalatable Truth” Ctd

Jan 22 2013 @ 4:00pm

A reader writes:

The food/eco bloggers I read point to some controversy over this quinoa story. Apparently, it surfaced at end of November, with an NPR story. The counterargument is basically that there is not a quinoa shortage, that farmers have been and continue to grow for themselves. Some suggest that there is an incentive for some (corn, wheat industry) to push a story that would turn people away from this alternative grain. Here is one of the sources they cite, from filmmakers in Bolivia, who were there at the time of the NPR story. Here‘s another take on it, which makes the point that the popularity of quinoa means that farmers are incentivized to grow it in less successful regions, which has ecological consequences.

Another:

There’s an interesting response to this by Doug Saunders in the Globe & Mail. He compares the case of quinoa today with lobster in Nova Scotia generations ago, arguing that higher prices make farmers’ lives better, not worse.

Another lets loose:

I despised Joanna Blythman’s article about quinoa. The claim that vegans are somehow responsible for Bolivian farmers going hungry is ignorant and, frankly, insulting.

Blythman cites no source whatsoever for her assumption that vegans make up the bulk of the rising demand for the product. Vegans are less than one percent of the population of the United States, so perhaps Blythman ought to have done some research before calling them out. Indeed, veganism is part of the solution to global hunger, not part of the problem. As PETA’s Mimi Bekhechi pointed out in her response to Blythman’s article, animal agriculture is what truly hogs the world’s grain supply. It takes 4.5 pounds of grain to make one pound of chicken meat (and the numbers can be worse for other animals).

Moreover, Blythman’s hasty assumption that Bolivian farmers are being harmed by the rising demand for their crops is paternalistic and bizarre. Nowhere in the article does she even mention that farmers become wealthier when the price of their crop increases. I am not an expert in the industrial organization of Bolivian quinoa farmers, but presumably they could choose to continue consuming quinoa, instead of exporting it, if they felt that was best. For Bolivian farmers, at least, the rising price of quinoa only increased their set of options.

Of course, not all of the benefits of rising prices go to the farmers themselves and poor consumers of quinoa who are not farmers may have been harmed. But an honest article would acknowledge and analyze these tradeoffs instead of jumping to a baseless conclusion. I am curious about how far Blythman’s logic extends. Would she prefer that rich consumers in the West boycott all products produced by people in poor countries, so the poor can keep their output for themselves? Does she actually believe this would make the poor better off?