Quinoa in the news as “good to think.”

There has been a spate of articles over the past year telling American and European consumers that their love of the Andean grain quinoa is detrimental to those who grow it in Bolivia and Peru.  The general narrative is that rising quinoa prices in the United States and Europe mean that Bolivians can no longer afford to eat quinoa themselves.  This idea has been floated by the New York Times, The Independent, NPR in two articles, The Economist, CBC News, and the Guardian, among others.

There have already been numerous well-researched responses to this narrative.  Mimi Bekhechi comes to the defense of vegans, who are called out by the Guardian, by pointing out that beef production in industrialized countries is far from ecologically or socially sound.  Documentary filmmakers Stefan Jeremiah and Michael Wilcox take issue with NPR on the basis of their work with Bolivian quinoa farmers, who are, unsurprisingly, still eating quinoa.   Emma Banks at the Andean Information Network offers much-needed in-depth historical perspective on the issue of agricultural policy and its relationship to food consumption.  To quote her at length:

In past decades, quinoa’s popularity declined among the upper middle classes in favor of wheat and rice that they perceive as more “sophisticated” and “upwardly mobile.” Ironically, the valorization of quinoa in North American and European markets has caused many up-scale Bolivian restaurants to begin serving quinoa and the middle and upper class to consume more of the grain.

Banks correctly points out that it is misleading to imply that the decline in Bolivian quinoa consumption began with the rise of a quinoa market in the United States and Europe.  The situation is far more complicated.  

First, quinoa consumption in Bolivia is not — and never has been — uniform.  There are large differences in cuisine based on ecological zones, class, and level of urbanity.  Where quinoa is produced, is it certainly consumed.  In urban areas, quinoa is consumed in smaller quantities and in specific culinary contexts.  In La Paz, for example, quinoa consumption has been declining for decades  among the non-indigenous middle class as a result of national agricultural policies, U.S. foreign food aid, the association of quinoa with poor indigenous peoples, and other factors.  In short, talking about “Bolivian consumption” of quinoa is inherently problematic because the nation is not the scale to productively consider this question.

In the altiplano village where I did fieldwork, quinoa was produced and consumed in small quantities.  Although valued, quinoa and closely related cañahua were grown as secondary crops.  In this region, these crops are subject to hail damage, which makes it impossible to rely on them exclusively.  They also require large amounts of labor to thresh and clean before cooking.  Local restaurants, while they would purchase many ingredients locally, tended to purchase pre-cleaned, ready to cook quinoa from city markets.  Local producers grew quinoa for private use, but restaurant owners preferred to purchase the grain (at higher costs) rather than spend the needed time to clean it.  

The local staple in this area, as in many parts of the altiplano, is potatoes.  Potatoes are a native crop, domesticated in the Andes, and found in some form in almost every meal.  While quinoa is valued and appreciated, it does not make up the majority of the diet.  Nevertheless, it was valued and eaten.

But let’s consider for a moment why this narrative of quinoa is the one that has been picked up by U.S. and European news media.  Why is it such a “story” to say that foreign love for quinoa is detrimental to the Bolivians who grow it, despite the fact that the Bolivian government and producer associations are actively trying to promote quinoa exports?

It seems to me that this media attention is actually maintaining the image of quinoa that makes it “good to think” for western consumers.

For my non-anthropologically-trained readers, a quick explanation.  “Good to think” is a reference to the work of  structuralist anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, who coined this phrase.  He argued that while foods are “good to eat,” they also carry symbolic value. Food is never just food; we never eat just to gain calories.  That’s why in the U.S. moms making pancakes in the morning emotes maternal care, why roast turkeys are served for holidays, and why we tell our kids they can’t have dessert before they eat their vegetables.  These are not universals; they are cultural norms about what foods mean.  When those norms are broken, interesting things happen precisely because food is symbolically important.  And you can try this at home: serve your kids roast turkey and cranberry sauce for breakfast on a school day and see how they respond.  (There are more examples of anthropologists breaking such culinary norms in this book I co-edited.)

Now, back to quinoa and why it is “good to think.”

It is the fact that quinoa is less consumed in Bolivia, ironically, that propels its image abroad.  We all eat potatoes; many of my undergraduate students don’t even know these are native to the Andes.  But there is little attention paid to this fact when potatoes are sold in our supermarkets.  Quinoa, in contrast, because its consumption is largely limited even in Bolivia to the rural indigenous communities that produce it, fulfills the role of the “lost crop of the Inca,” and is regularly referred to as “ancient.” 

Let’s think about that for a moment, the connection between quinoa and the past that pervades its marketing in the west.  Most news articles label quinoa as the “lost crop of the Incas.”  This may seem normal to my U.S. readers, but consider for a moment if your bread was labeled as being made with the “lost crop of the Levant” or “ancient wheat.”  Wheat is an ancient crop, in the sense that it was domesticated thousands of years ago.  There are in fact groups interested in growing and cooking with lesser-grown varieties of wheat, but this is not a widespread marketing technique for wheat in general.  If you type “ancient wheat” or “ancient bread” into Google, you’ll be sent to websites with agricultural news, specialty diets, and recipes.  Type in “ancient quinoa” and you will be sent to buy quinoa, largely because of the “Ancient Harvest” label used by the U.S.-based Quinoa Coporation.

Quinoa is not ancient because it was domesticated further in the past than other crops.  It is “ancient” because its western consumers associate it with traditional indigenous populations untouched by modern industrialization — people they think about as being in the past.  (It should go without saying that this is a western fantasy.)  

That is the association quinoa has in Bolivia as well, where the highest levels of quinoa consumption are seen in rural areas and among indigenous urban people.  Since the 1950s, deliberate policies that promoted the consumption of wheat, bread, pasta, and rice have reduced the consumption of native potatoes, quinoa, tarwi, and other crops.  Those foods, however, also became marked by class and ethnicity, such that quinoa came to be seen as indigenous rural food.  That class/ethnic association has been exported to the U.S. and Europe with the grain.

 The process of foreign interest spurring high-end Bolivian restaurants to serve quinoa is similar to what occurred with the consumption of llama meat (which I wrote about here and here).  In La Paz in the early 1990s llama meat was available only in indigenous urban markets, but now is offered in touristic establishments (but still not in most restaurants that cater to the Bolivian middle-class).  The reason quinoa has been picked up by high-end establishments — while chuño (freeze-dried potatoes), generally, has not — is not just about taste but about the narrative the grain has of isolated survival, pure indigenousness, and rarity.  Quinoa is “good to think.”

I agree that quinoa should be available for all Bolivians to consume, and that higher prices may make that difficult for some.  It is something to be concerned about.  But these higher prices are spurred on by specific kinds of foreign interest, grounded in the idea that quinoa is ancient, lost, indigenous, and underappreciated.  The idea promoted by the media, that foreign interest in quinoa could destroy its very authenticity, confirms the reasons the grain was “good to think” for westerners in the first place.  This media narrative suggests that quinoa cannot be in both temporalities at once — if too many American vegans are eating it, it will cease to be the “lost crop of the Incas.”  It suggest that quinoa cannot continue to be truly “indigenous” if it is successfully produced for a commercial export market.  

We absolutely need to be considered about ethical access to food, promoting fair labor practices, regulating capitalist systems that undercut food security, and promoting good nutrition.  But to suggest that the solution in this case is either for foreigners to stop eating quinoa, or to grow it in western countries (which would undercut Bolivian farmers by destroying their export markets), is both simplistic and unethical.  Quinoa can be “good to think,” “good to eat,” and also profitable for those who export it.

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