Strong demand for things poor people sell somehow bad for poor people

Zainab Mudallal’s story on Quartz on expanding demand for the “next” Quinoas (Teff, Fonio, Amaranth) is a neat example of a growing genre of reporting about these products: cataclysmically over-written and based on a first-semester-first-year’s economic student-style blunder on the distributional impact of growing demand.

You know the stories I’m talking about: stories about how rising demand for Quinoa are “pricing people out of foods they’ve eaten for generations.”

What’s odd about these stories is the way they treat Peruvians (or Ethiopians, or Whereverians) exclusively as consumers who suffer the negative impact of price rises. What’s jarring is that they do this in the context of honouring local people for maintaining ancient grains in production.

It never seems to register that these things can’t both be true. The reality is that in many places, ancient grains are mainstays of smallholder agriculture, and smallholder farmers are almost always the poorest people in poor countries.

Other thing being equal, growth in farm-gate prices for the products of smallholder farmers are some of the most unambiguously good news for poverty reduction in any poor country: raising incomes and expanding opportunities in a way no first-world funded aid project ever could.

The Quinoa Boom, for instance, has generated previously unheard of opportunities for Bolivian farmers and agro-entrepreneurs, even generating a class of very well off indigenous people now building themselves the deliriously over-the-top mansions pictured above. These are people whose grandparents lived on the edge of starvation, Zainab: put that in your pipe and smoke it.

None of this registers with the disasterist school of Quinoa reporting. We’re just meant to feel bad that our “gorging” on “their” food is somehow hurting the people whom we’re paying for our dinner.

People in rich countries who think of themselves as socially responsible have built a bizarre network of justifications to explain to themselves why it’s good to purchase their food from people just like them who drive nice cars and eat three meals a day (c.f., “eat local”) and bad to buy their food from the poorest farmers in the world. It’s painful.

5 thoughts on “Strong demand for things poor people sell somehow bad for poor people”

  1. While I strongly agree with your main point, it is important to remember that most of the rural poor, including many small farmers, are net buyers of food. They either don’t have enough land to feed their families or have to sell their crop at low post-harvest prices in order to cover urgent family cash requirements, such as medicine, debt, or school fees, and then buy back essentials later in the season. Either way, higher prices can hurt the most vulnerable. Others may be able to make enough to get out of this trap, investing to raise their yield and thus increase their income even more. Even the landless may benefit, if there’s more work and higher wages. It’s never simple, given the diversity of poor families’ situations. A key measure is the establishment of monitoring and safety net systems that protect the vulnerable, even as many of their neighbors benefit from inclusion in global value chains.

    1. Of course of course. The details are complicated. What worries me is that the basic principle seems to elude people: it’s always going to be easier to help people out of poverty if they’re producing something that’s in high demand than if they’re not!

      That people fail to see this sort of staggers me.

  2. Partially true, but several inaccuracies mis-statements of the variety you accuse others of, for instance the “house” above is not a house but a dance hall, (salon de baile). So a food trader (not necessarily in quinoa) has made money and reinvested locally in a dance hall? Let us not mis-state what has actually gone on here – and its only 120 of these ‘neo-andean’ edifices in the whole of Bolivia!
    On the other hand many EU supermarkets fly in green beans etc from sub saharan Africa with tiny margins for local farmers. Sure its money but its the same sort of exploitation that has gone on in the cocoa, tea and coffee cartels for the past 5 decades.
    So while development may be boring, it cannot be exploitative. We have had enough of that, speaking as an African.

    1. The “house” is located on the floors above the dance halls, and you’re right to point out that these generally pertain to traders that are not necessarily related to quinoa production. And while there may only be 120 of the neo-Andean style mansions, they’re largely limited to El Alto, while the region of the country that is primarily benefiting from quinoa production is in the southwest corner in the Potosi department. It’s a tertiary point, though, because quinoa growing is reversing migration trends and providing opportunities for campesinos to return to rural areas and make a decent living.

  3. Working for Fairtrade, we talked with producers there and heard from a number of them that the problem wasn’t so much with not being able to afford quinoa for their own consumption, but the gold rush like fever of newcomers coming in and trying to cultivate quinoa while ignoring traditional methods.

    I think one of the bigger concerns for me personally is making sure that farmers who have been cultivating it for generations can benefit. But it seems to get tricky when a lot of money is involved.

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