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.