“If Poor People Get Richer, They Won’t Have Anything to Eat”

The nonsensical sentiment expressed in this post’s title seems to be the guiding belief among people in the United States and United Kingdom currently concerned that eating imported quinoa is harmful to the Bolivian farmers who grow it.

For the uninitiated, quinoa is a grain-like plant that grows only in the Andes Mountains and is possibly the most nutritious food on the planet. In recent years, health food enthusiasts in the United States and Europe have developed an affinity for the exotic import. The result has been a sharp rise in the food’s global price and a concurrent increase in production in Bolivia and Peru.

If you’re like me, you probably think this is a terrific outcome for the Bolivians, who can now sell their crop for three times what they could just five years ago. Major media outlets disagree. The New York Times ran a piece titled “Quinoa’s Global Success Creates Quandary at Home” that warns, “The surge has helped raise farmers’ incomes here in one of the hemisphere’s poorest countries. But there has been a notable trade-off: Fewer Bolivians can now afford it, hastening their embrace of cheaper, processed foods and raising fears of malnutrition in a country that has long struggled with it.”

The UK Guardian ran an article last week airing similar concerns and also published a commentary titled, “Can Vegans Stomach the Unpalatable Truth about Quinoa?” The commentary’s author laments that “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.”

This is all par for the course in the interminable fair-trade, ethical-consumption conundrum in which the desire among affluent American consumers for things is pitted against their concern that production, commerce, and consumption breed injustice. While part of me finds this hand-wringing amusing, I can’t help but worry about the bigotry implied in the notion that poor foreigners will starve if they are allowed to sell food for money. 

I came across a blog post recently by Stefan Jeremiah and Michael Wilcox, two photographers currently in Bolivia making a documentary. They do a really great job of putting the quinoa controversy in its place. After National Public Radio ran a story in November worrying about overpriced food for poor Bolivians and considering the possibility of growing quinoa in the United States, Jeremiah and Wilcox wrote this in response:

The overwhelming evidence suggests that as demand for quinoa increases, Bolivians growing quinoa is providing a viable way of working themselves out of poverty. Perpetuating these myths and half truths only serves to damage a growing economy and undermine hard working farmers’ efforts to lift themselves out of poverty in an honest and sincere endeavor.

What are your motives behind this article (and the others you reference)? It appears that you’d rather Americans didn’t buy from Bolivians and are making a concerted effort to turn Americans away from eating Bolivian quinoa. Convincing Americans that somehow boycotting Bolivian quinoa and taking away the bulk of international demand will do the farmers more good is unacceptable.

Is the American Dream restricted only for Americans of the United States? Is it that ambition, hard work, enterprise, blood, sweat and toil is only reserved for the people of your choosing? Is it because seeing farmers in the Developing World actually succeeding doesn’t fit with your own expectation of misery and starvation? Would you prefer the humble Bolivian quinoa farmer to stay poor and remain in his place?

[We] charge you that all these things are the rights of all the peoples of the Americas across both continents, North and South…if not the World.

HT: Courtney Patridge