January 22, 2013

Quinoa: food fads and fallacies

In an alternate universe, perhaps I am an agricultural economist. Or, maybe my graduate training has prepared me to critically view articles like this recent one about quinoa and why vegans are awful people, as well as the response. For an actual economist's point of view, check out Mark Bellemare's blog.

There is no easy answer to this question. Like determining the greenhouse gas impact of "food miles," without a lot of data it's difficult to determine the net positive or negative effect that rising quinoa prices have on Bolivian farmers. My instinct is that in this case, rising prices might actually be helping farmers. If there are getting consistently high prices for quinoa that they sell, that means that they can actually sell less (or grow less acres) of this high-value export and still make a good profit. A good analog would be basmati rice that's grown in the Punjab region. But in both articles, the problem of quinoa prices for Bolivian farmers is conflated with the impact of globalization. It's true that globalization is changing the price of foods, their availability, and consumer preferences all over the world. Sometimes this can have negative impacts (think Coke, junk food, subsidized grains, and volatile markets), but there are also positive impacts. It's all more complicated than the first article would admit.