Common Sense, Science and Government Part II: A Case of Quinoa

The first case I’ll discuss focuses on quinoa, a grain-like staple more closely related to beets and spinach than to the true grasses such as wheat. Once a rather obscure food in the US, quinoa experienced a rapid popularity spike beginning in 2007 when consumers in the global north fed into a new narrative extoling its virtues for health and social justice alike. It began with nutrition-minded journalists hailing quinoa as a “new health food darling”. High in protein, in fact featuring all nine amino acids, quinoa could also serve as a gluten-free substitute for wheat or barley. The added mystique of a “rediscovered” (read: Columbused) ancient staple, a “lost” Inca Treasure, also dovetailed nicely with the popular paleo-diet trend which urged a dietary return to an idealized simpler time when people were more closely attuned with nature. For all of these reasons, quinoa received great publicity as a sacred, super crop.

An interrelated second narrative presented quinoa as a way for consumers to also support fair trade and sustainable development. Buying quinoa meant supporting farmers in developing countries such as Peru and Bolivia while allowing them to maintain a traditional way of life. The pitch for quinoa on Eden Organic’s website, for example, reads, “The most ancient American staple grain. Sustainably grown at over 12,000 feet in the Andes helping preserve native culture.” In 2012, when I first looked into the quinoa case, I came across a fair trade certified brand, La Yapa (now defunct), which summed up a stronger iteration of this marketing narrative:

“In the past few years, the income of quinoa farmers has doubled with the increase in volume and prices… The farmer’s quality of life also has increased steadily… By choosing this Fair Trade Certified™ product, you are directly supporting a better life for farming families through fair prices, direct trade, community development, and environmental stewardship.”

The global food security community also picked up on the quinoa fanfare, culminating in the 2011 decision by the United Nations General Assembly to declare 2013 “The International Year of the Quinoa”. The press release for the occasion cites the potential contributions of quinoa to then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Zero Hunger Challenge, “not only because of its nutritional value but also because most quinoa is currently produced by smallholder farmers… ‘The crop holds the promise of improved incomes – a key plank of the Zero Hunger Challenge,’ Ban said.” A special report was released with the goal of “improving knowledge and dissemination of this ancient crop, which has a significant strategic value for the food and nutritional security of humanity.

The other piece of this global food security narrative touted the environmental advantages of traditional subsistence crops like quinoa (e.g. amaranth, teff, fonio, etc.), especially their resilience in the face of global climate change. A recent article from National Geographic captures the essence of this line of thinking:

“[Sustainable agriculture advocates are] increasingly turning to grains that have been the basis of subsistence farmers’ diets in Africa, South Asia, and Central and South America since the time of earliest agriculture. Because such grains adapted to grow on marginal land without irrigation, pesticides, or fertilizers, they are often more resilient than modern commodity crops are.” (emphasis added, also see note at [ii]).

Taken altogether, quinoa has been presented in and to the global north as a win-win-win superfood—good for the health of wealthy consumers, the wealth of poor farmers, and the ecological stability of global agriculture[i]. The overall message to the savvy shopper in New York or Berkeley or Chicago, then, was that quinoa was good to buy.

But complications with that rosy narrative arose just as rapidly as quinoa’s acclaim spread. Demand rose so quickly that the price of quinoa tripled from 2007 to 2010 (Fig. 1).

Prices

Fig. 1: Prices of Quinoa at the Farm Gate, 1993-2012 (constant Int. $/tonne). Source: http://faostat3.fao.org/.

 

Ironically, the food which was celebrated as a “cultural anchor and a staple in the diet of millions of people throughout the Andes for thousands of years” seemed to have been priced out of their budget by the “agricultural gold rush.”Over the same time period, production volume accelerated its growth and the area cultivated for quinoa expanded substantially, especially in Bolivia (Figs. 2 and 3).

Production

Fig. 2: Tonnes of Quinoa Produced Annually, 1994-2013. Source: http://faostat3.fao.org/.

Area Harvested

Fig. 3: Hectares of Quinoa Harvested Annually, 1994-2013. Source: http://faostat3.fao.org/.

These numbers seemed to paint a much more complex story than win-win-win: Was high consumer demand in the US and the EU actually taking a staple food away from South America smallholders? Were record-level prices encouraging farmers to plant quinoa on ecologically marginal lands, courting disaster in the form of an Andean equivalent to the Dust Bowl? With soaring prospects for fat profit-margins and a global development community hungry for a silver bullet crop, were Andean smallholder farmers in danger of losing control over quinoa and being pushed out of their own market?[ii]

All of these questions, however, boiled down to one media snippet for global north publics: to eat or not to eat? A rash of headlines in early 2013 posed titillating provocative challenges to the quinoa fad. “Is eating quinoa evil?,” quipped The Week, while The Guardian challenged, “Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?”. Tom Philpott, writing for Mother Jones, tried to restore some sanity with his more nuanced article, “Quinoa: Good, Evil, or Just Really Complicated?”, but the overarching point of reference for the American and European publics had been set. Whether a question of health, the viability of smallholder farming, or environmental sustainability, it had to be framed, in Hamlett-like fashion, to buy or not to buy?

Lost amid all the hand-wringing were the voices cautioning that the public and the media had fixated on the wrong question. Tanya Kerssen, an analyst at the non-profit organization Food First writing for Common Dreams, pointed out that to consume or not to consume was a false choice:

“In short, the debate has largely been reduced to the invisible hand of the marketplace, in which the only options for shaping our global food system are driven by (affluent) consumers either buying more or buying less… [T]he so-called quinoa quandary demonstrates the limits of consumption-driven politics. Because whichever way you press the lever (buy more/buy less) there are bound to be negative consequences, particularly for poor farmers in the Global South. To address the problem we have to analyze the system itself, and the very structures that constrain consumer and producer choices…

Consumption-driven strategies, while part of the toolbox for effecting change, are not the only tools. Only by facing the reality that we can’t consume our way to a more just and sustainable world—and examining the full range of political options and strategies—can we start coming up with real solutions.” (emphasis added).

So there we have one example to help illustrate why good policy cannot rely solely upon common sense for guidance. As Gramsci warned, common sense “takes countless different forms” and “even in the brain of one individual, is fragmentary, incoherent” (as quoted in my previous post). Relying upon common sense alone is to follow a fickle and partial guide. The assumptions and tacit beliefs underlying common sense will not always hold up under scrutiny, meaning that developing good policy requires continual critical reflection, public debate, and learning.

Quinoa has risen to prominence because it can link key points of contention in global agricultural policy—often voiced in highly abstract statistics on population demographics, epidemiological findings, economic indicators, and environmental qualities—to the daily concern with what to eat that makes intuitive sense to powerful publics in the global north. While certain policy programs (e.g. leveraging the ‘traditional ecological knowledge’ of smallholder farmers or folding peasants into global commodity food markets) may have gained political traction by adapting their arguments to the contours of common sense, such compromise comes at a cost. In this case, the experiences and perceptions of first-world consumers were naively accepted as the “terrain” of common sense upon which public debates about global poverty, health, and climate change can and should be debated. However, this common sense represents only a narrow slice of daily life around the globe.

Missing from the common sense of affluent consumers are, for example, the experiences and perspectives of the Andean farmers who grow quinoa and the poor whose health and development so many are concerned with. And this is not to mention the underrepresentation of nonhuman organisms and ecosystems, especially those not explicitly contributing to food commodities (e.g. the ecosystems on marginal lands into which quinoa farming has begun to spread). That translates to a large number of options and strategies that will never even be considered and a large number of unintended consequences that will never be recognized because they are outside the realm of what is commonly familiar to the consumer classes. As Kerssen writes, it would be a rational ideal to “examine the full range”, but if we want to take that process seriously, then we also need to examine the full range of common sense.

As I argued in the previous post, good policy, including environmental and natural resource policy, cannot ignore common sense, but must work with the grain of existing preconceptions and ways of living in the world. What this case highlights is that we also cannot rely solely on common sense to guide us to good policy. As is shown with the quinoa case, common sense—such as the idea that the only lever we have with which to move the world comes in the form of our fork or our wallet—often misses important pieces of the story and can lead us far afield or into a seemingly intractable impasse or an impossible (or false) choice. Critical reflection on the strengths and shortcomings of basic common sense is needed.

From this insight, we can infer that good policy emerges from critical consideration of common sense. Good policy must be built on that existing foundation, but also must do productive work on people to direct them toward better habits, better ways of living in the world. In short, in order to better approximate good sense. Next time, we’ll consider upon what basis, if not common sense, good sense can be gauged.


[i] For an example of the kind of utopian visions that experts began attaching to quinoa potential future, a 2014 article by Lisa Hamilton in Harper’s Magazine quotes a prominent Dutch agronomist, saying, “If you ask for one crop that can save the world and address climate change, nutrition, all these things—the answer is quinoa. There’s no doubt about it.”

[ii] This poses a very thorny political economic question, and one that doesn’t lend itself easily to a simple yes or no response. The Harper’s article (ibid) tackles the complexity in greater depth, but the short version is that with great potential comes great prosperity, and then a great struggle over who has the right to enjoy that prosperity. In past epochs, newly “discovered” crops could be expropriated and spread around the world; examples include potatoes, tomatoes, or maize, all of which are native to the Americas. These plants didn’t just naturally evolve as desirable food crops, however. Rather, the ancestors of the Aztec, Incan and other indigenous peoples spent millennia worth of work breeding them from wild plants. Yet they never saw a penny for sharing those crops with the rest of the world. Instead, that privilege was assumed by European colonists and their descendants while Native American peoples were instead violently repressed (and killed). The Andean peoples of Bolivia and Ecuador are savvy to the long history of indigenous groups losing control over their germplasm heritages and have thus imposed strict sanctions over any sharing of quinoa seeds and genetic information. Thus quinoa finds itself at the heart of a struggle between food sovereignty and food security—an impasse seems to have been reached with “the poor of the Andes pitted against the poor of the world” (ibid). There are doubtless sensible and just ways to negotiate out of this impasse, which I won’t try to guess at here, but again the point I would like to make is that complex problems require complex (and often messy) responses. Pretending that a simple solution can be found by applying basic common sense (i.e. the needs of the world’s many outweigh the needs of the Andean few, so world development organizations should just go ahead and take quinoa from Bolivians and Peruvians) is not a route to sound policy or good governance.

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