This is a response i posted on Tumblr earlier, but Tumblr is horrible for anything remotely blog-like so i wanted to save it here — especially in case anyone wanted to actually comment on it. Everything in blockquotes is the previous post that i’m replying to. My commentary begins at “Why in the world is this a problem we’re pinning on just vegans?”
hangin’ on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic differences in our society*
Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?
Not long ago, quinoa was just an obscure Peruvian grain you could only buy in wholefood shops. We struggled to pronounce it (it’s keen-wa, not qui-no-a), yet it was feted by food lovers as a novel addition to the familiar ranks of couscous and rice. Dieticians clucked over quinoa approvingly because it ticked the low-fat box and fitted in with government healthy eating advice to “base your meals on starchy foods”.
Adventurous eaters liked its slightly bitter taste and the little white curls that formed around the grains. Vegans embraced quinoa as a credibly nutritious substitute for meat. Unusual among grains, quinoa has a high protein content (between 14%-18%), and it contains all those pesky, yet essential, amino acids needed for good health that can prove so elusive to vegetarians who prefer not to pop food supplements.
Sales took off. Quinoa was, in marketing speak, the “miracle grain of the Andes”, a healthy, right-on, ethical addition to the meat avoider’s larder (no dead animals, just a crop that doesn’t feel pain). Consequently, the price shot up – it has tripled since 2006 – with more rarified black, red and “royal” types commanding particularly handsome premiums.
But there is an unpalatable truth to face for those of us with a bag of quinoa in the larder. The appetite of countries such as ours for this grain has pushed up prices to such an extent that poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom it was once a nourishing staple food, can no longer afford to eat it. Imported junk food is cheaper. In Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken. Outside the cities, and fuelled by overseas demand, the pressure is on to turn land that once produced a portfolio of diverse crops into quinoa monoculture.
In fact, 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. Feeding our apparently insatiable 365-day-a-year hunger for this luxury vegetable, Peru has also cornered the world market in asparagus. Result? In the arid Ica region where Peruvian asparagus production is concentrated, this thirsty export vegetable has depleted the water resources on which local people depend. NGOs report that asparagus labourers toil in sub-standard conditions and cannot afford to feed their children while fat cat exporters and foreign supermarkets cream off the profits. That’s the pedigree of all those bunches of pricy spears on supermarket shelves.
Soya, a foodstuff beloved of the vegan lobby as an alternative to dairy products, is another problematic import, one that drives environmental destruction. Embarrassingly, for those who portray it as a progressive alternative to planet-destroying meat, soya production is now one of the two main causes of deforestation in South America, along with cattle ranching, where vast expanses of forest and grassland have been felled to make way for huge plantations.
Three years ago, the pioneering Fife Diet, Europe’s biggest local food-eating project, sowed an experimental crop of quinoa. It failed, and the experiment has not been repeated. But the attempt at least recognised the need to strengthen our own food security by lessening our reliance on imported foods, and looking first and foremost to what can be grown, or reared, on our doorstep.
In this respect, omnivores have it easy. Britain excels in producing meat and dairy foods for them to enjoy. However, a rummage through the shopping baskets of vegetarians and vegans swiftly clocks up the food miles, a consequence of their higher dependency on products imported from faraway places. From tofu and tamari to carob and chickpeas, the axis of the vegetarian shopping list is heavily skewed to global.
There are promising initiatives: one enterprising Norfolk company, for instance, has just started marketing UK-grown fava beans (the sort used to make falafel) as a protein-rich alternative to meat. But in the case of quinoa, there’s a ghastly irony when the Andean peasant’s staple grain becomes too expensive at home because it has acquired hero product status among affluent foreigners preoccupied with personal health, animal welfare and reducing their carbon “foodprint”. Viewed through a lens of food security, our current enthusiasm for quinoa looks increasingly misplaced.
Tell me again how “cruelty-free” your diet is.
Oh, wait, my bad, I forgot poor brown people don’t count because at least they’re not cows and chickens.
Why in the world is this a problem we’re pinning on just vegans? Vegans make up a tiny percentage of the population — i strongly doubt they, as a group, are solely responsible for all the quinoa consumption world-wide. If your reaction is to blame vegans for this, well, then all you’re telling me is that you’re irritated with vegans in the 1st place and simply have found more ammunition to continue to dislike them.
This problem, however, is less the result of a specialized dietary schema followed by a fraction of the population and MORE a result of globalization. As consumers, we want more and more things but at cheaper and cheaper prices. Not to mention company CEOs and boards and share-holders want to make as much money as possible with as little expense as possible. So production gets bigger and bigger to meet the demand, and then it gets shipped to areas of the world where labor is cheaper and cheaper (because, y’know, we still demand our nice paychecks and health benefits and so we’re costing those CEOs and boards and share-holders too much money in their expense columns). And that’s how we find ourselves with sweatshops in China making our jeans and iPods, and all the quinoa shipped away from Peru and Bolivia because the sellers can get better prices overseas.
This is not a problem vegans made — it’s a problem ALL of us in wealthy, greedy countries made.
If your next reaction is to tell me, “This is why we gotta eat more LOCAL”, well, now all you’re telling me is that you have the money to be able to eat more local. Eating locally-produced food is often a fair bit more expensive than buying all your groceries at the local supermarket. (And if shopping at the local farmers market is NOT more expensive than the supermarket for you, then, congrats! Are you from my hometown??) A cut of chicken on a styrofoam tray in the meat cooler of the supermarket is LOTS cheaper than a free-range organic chicken bought at the saturday farmers market.
Some things to think about next time you’re holding something in the grocery store or at the market:
- How far did this travel to get here? – How many stages of processing did it go thru’? – And how many people handled it at those stages and expect to be paid? – How much DO those people get paid? – How many hours a day/week are they expected to work? – Do they get sick days? – Do they work with chemicals? – Do they work in extreme heat or cold?- Can they afford the food you’re holding in your hands?
Consider this: It’s the dead of winter, the ground’s been frozen for a month, and the days are pretty short because the sun sets kind of early — but you’re chopping up a tomato.
You may consider all those questions and scenarios, and STILL need to buy the thing you’re holding. That’s fine and understandable! We need to eat. We need to buy food. We can only buy food from the options that are available to us. Buying on a budget, i’ve bought plenty of food that was extremely cheap — and i couldn’t afford to worry about where it came from. And sometimes i just crave a damn tomato in january. I am part of the problem, too.
We are ALL part of the problem, whether we want to be or not — whether we care or not. Because we, as a society, want tomatoes in the dead of winter. Because we like our quinoa (i’ve never had it, but clearly someone loves it). Because we don’t want to pay a whole lot for our jeans and our iPods.
We are all part of the problem; we are all trapped in the system. Blaming things on vegans is a red herring and DOESN’T ACTUALLY HELP. Implying that all vegans don’t care about brown people erases the experiences of people of color who are vegan. Implying that all vegans don’t care about poor people ignores vegans who are poor. Veganism is NOT just a precious hobby of well-off white people.
We are ALL trapped in this globalization system, and the system doesn’t care about poor people. But since we’re all trapped here together right now, let’s stop distracting ourselves by throwing stones at vegans and talk about what we’re going to do about this mess we made.
YOUR MOVE, TUMBLR.