Slate goes supply-side over quinoa

TW: food insecurity, threats to food sovereignty, neocolonialism

If you care to google quinoa or have friends like I do who like to discuss issues of food security, the fact that quinoa prices in Bolivia and many other producing areas have increased dramatically has probably already popped on to your radar. Of course, it’s worth noting that all of this hand-wringing has been coming from US and UK writers, who haven’t exactly mentioned their experiences on the altiplano. In light of that, Slate’s contrarian view might seem like a useful counterargument. That’s the key word though – seem.


(A Bolivian woman whose name is not provided carries just harvested quinoa in the fields, from here.)

The real crux of Slate’s point was that the real problem for Bolivians comes about “when media stories discourage people from buying imported quinoa in the name of solidarity with the locals […]  instead of helping, such reports threaten to kick the legs out from under one of the most promising industries in one of the world’s poorest places.” Why yes, that’s an argument that the world’s wealthy create the demand that does and should continue to drive the world’s economy. Slate has officially endorsed supply-side economics.

Unlike the assorted articles you can look up on your own about the increased risk of famine in Bolivia because of growing quinoa prices, Slate’s oddly conservative response at least seeks out some local confirmation, which it claims to find in Emma Banks’ work for the Andean Information Network. Now, I’ve already made clear how I feel about people with a Western background being expected to clarify a “non-Western” situation, but this is indeed a cut above most alternatives. Except for the small problem that they’ve pretty much misrepresented Banks’ discussion. While she’s skeptical that the increased risk of hunger can be laid exclusively at the feet of foreign quinoa consumers, she’s also hesitant to accept the supply-side argument that Slate unabashedly makes. At one point, she outright says that there’s “no supporting analysis” that getting rid of demand for imported quinoa would decimate the Bolivian and other Andean producers. Overall, she seems to view the situation as messy, reflecting changing climates and unstable markets that entered the picture long before quinoa exports did.

Beyond her greater caution to endorse the conclusions Slate leaps to, Banks main point is that the key issue here is perhaps food sovereignty – that Bolivians have the primary voice in their own country’s food production – rather than food insecurity – that Bolivians have adequate food. Slate’s article at least pays lip service to this idea, quoting her work and then admitting, “quinoa eaters that live in urban areas […] must pay higher prices for the grain, but don’t reap the economic benefits.” As is true in almost every country in the world, rural and urban poverty are different if related phenomena.

Still, Slate’s response to that thorny issue is that if the urban poor are suffering, they should just become the rural poor: “rising quinoa prices are drawing many urban refugees back to the countryside, where it’s now possible to make a living from farming.” This is a close cousin to supply-side economics – the Rational Choice theory of Migration (on page 35). Legal, economic, and even physical barriers to migration are swept aside in that framework, which understands migration as a simple choice to move to where opportunities exist. Nevermind whether the urban poor in Bolivia can actually pick their entire lives up and find a plot of land (which even Slate admits is a hot commodity in a quinoa boom), that’s what they should do, and that’s all that evidently matters.

Of course, having that as their response shows their true colors – Banks’ argument about food sovereignty was apparently an easy rhetorical way of showing someone in the field agreed that the arguments being made in other newspapers were flawed, not an actual point they took to heart (or even to mind). That’s pretty clear once you realize that the advocated solution seems to be the economic restructuring of most of Latin America’s highlands around exports to North America and Europe. If there’s a clearer example of eroded sovereignty, it’s hard to think of one.

In this whole discussion I think Emma Banks is by far coming across as having the most complete understanding of the situation which she seems to think is nigh intractable (although she modestly insists that there’s a lot she doesn’t know – I suppose I’ll take her word for it). I’ll leave you with one of her parting points, which Slate seems to have only halfway absorbed:

“Foreign consumers of quinoa can stop buying the grain, but this change would actually intensify existing poverty and malnutrition by taking away Bolivian producers’ steady source of income. True food and economic security must be achieved simultaneously.” (emphasis added)

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