2013 International Year of Quinoa event at Dickinson College (Carlisle, PA)

The GT’s own Dr. Maria Bruno is organizing a fantastic event about quinoa at Dickinson College tomorrow.  I’m looking forward to learning more about quinoa agriculture from Andrew Ofstehage and Pablo Laguna, and I’ll also be speaking about why Quinua is “good to think.”  Here’s the official flyer!

Dickinson Quinoa Event_2013


McDonald’s vs Quinua: Meta-commodities and strategic alliances

Anthropological Allsorts

Bolivia has become a popular place to mention while critiquing the West/United States.  Don’t like U.S. politics? Consider Bolivian popular protests. Don’t like exploitative capitalism? Bolivia is rejecting neoliberalism. Don’t like U.S. fast food?  Food writer Steve Holt, after watching Fernando Martinez’s 2011 documentary “¿Por qué se quebró McDonalds?“, asks us to consider Bolivia.  After all, they don’t have McDonald’s.

Let me be clear: I haven’t eaten regularly at McDonald’s since my short stint working in one as a teen (and even then, I often packed a lunch). I also don’t eat at Burger King, Wendy’s, Carl’s Jr., In and Out, or other burger fast food establishments unless it’s one of the rare occasions when  a) I’m on a road trip with people who really, really want to eat at such a place,  or b) I’m trapped in an airport and need to eat quickly.  Once…

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Blaming vegans, ignoring celiacs: an update on quinoa quarrels

Slate has jumped on the quinoa media bandwagon, with Ari LeVaux telling us that it’s ok to eat quinoa.  Overall, I think his article is a well-written corrective to recent media negativity.  I want to focus on one of his points:

Interestingly, the Guardian story seemed as much a hit-piece on vegetarians and vegans as on quinoa eaters. (“Britain excels in producing meat and dairy foods … However, a rummage through the shopping baskets of vegetarians and vegans swiftly clocks up the food miles, a consequence of their higher dependency on products imported from faraway places.”)

I completely agree with LeVaux on this point — what originally caught my attention about the Guardian piece was its “blame the vegans” tone.  This struck me as strange, given how few Americans are vegetarians: about 3% of adults, with 0.5% being vegans.  (Numbers in the UK appear to be similar.)  Of course, these are still large absolute numbers; U.S. vegetarians alone are almost as numerous as the entire population of Bolivia (7.3 million vs. 10 million).

But there is an interesting omission here, too.  Another group that touts quinoa consumption, and has gone unmentioned in all the media stories I linked to my last post, are those following gluten-free diets, such as those with celiac disease.  Diagnosed celiacs in the U.S. number in the tens of thousands (many more are undiagnosed) and gluten-free foods are a $5 billion/year industry.  (I haven’t seen any good statistics on how many people actually maintain a gluten-free diet, although I would love to see those numbers.)  But this has not attracted any mention, unlike vegetarian/vegan consumption of quinoa.

I suspect this is because U.S. readers place those two forms of eating into different categories — food vs medicine — even though the boundaries between them are fuzzy.  Despite the fact that much quinoa in the U.S. is marketed as “gluten-free,” this aspect of its market appears to be beyond criticism.   Given the focus of the media on health issues and the latest life-extending weight-dropping fad diets, it is unsurprising that the quinoa critiques would focus on vegetarians (who supposedly avoid meat by choice) rather than celiacs (who must eat gluten-free for medical reasons).

If the purpose of a medically-recommended diet is to extend one’s life and improve its quality, however, then the distinction between vegetarian and gluten-free diets become far less clear.  Vegetarians often point out the health benefits of their diet (as well as the political, environmental, and ethical benefits), but we still see this as a diet of choice rather than one of medical necessity.  (Note: I say this as an unapologetic omnivore.)

So why blame the vegans?  Again, quinoa proves itself to be good to think about the patterns and politics of food consumption in the west.

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.

Quinua: The Ancient Super-Food of the Future… and 2013

My fellow gringos, it has been far too long.  Let’s break radio silence with the happy news that Evo Morales has been named the Quinoa Special Ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).  Assuming western popular interpretations of the Mayan calendar are incorrect and the world does not end (sorry, I’m currently thinking about these questions), 2013 will be the International Year of Quinua.

I love quinua.  I can’t wait to get quispina in our local coffee shops. Yum!

What strikes me most about this conversation about quinua is the convergence of temporalities in its praise.  Don’t get me wrong, quinua is delicious.  But so are many other foods, and we don’t talk about their deliciousness in identical ways.  If one wants to sing the praises of soda or twinkies, one is not going to do that with the same language one lauds a filet mignon or an heirloom tomato.  So let us consider for a moment how people talk about quinua, somewhat independently from its wonderfulness.

Quinua is not new.  It was domesticated centuries ago and has been part of Andean diets since long before 1492.  This is emphasized in its marketing in the U.S. — it’s the grain of the Inca and of Andean tradition.  The claim that it is part of food security in the Andes — and could be in other parts of the world — is not a stretch either. In fact, this is not the first time that an Andean domesticate has had the potential to change the world’s diet.  Potatoes revolutionized the world, producing far more calories per acre than wheat, and allowing for in situ storage that protected crops from requisitioning by marauding armies in Europe.  The history of the potato is well-documented and studied, and an amazing example of how a single domesticate can change world history.

Potatoes have a couple other advantages over quinua, which may not be evident to people who haven’t tried producing them.  Having farmed potatoes in Bolivia and the U.S., and helped with quinua harvest, threshing, and cooking in Bolivia, I can say that potatoes are far less work.  Threshing quinua is among the hardest physical labor I have ever done.  In addition, quinua is susceptible to hail damage, which is common in the Andes.  So while quinua is both delicious and nutritious, it is also riskier to grow and requires far more labor, most of which is done by hand.  That non-mechanization is used as further evidence of quinua’s traditional, ancient nature in its marketing abroad.

Morales has claimed that NASA identified quinua as ideal food for astronauts.  I am fascinated by this intersection of the ancient/traditional and the futuristic/technological.  Astronaut food is generally distinguished more by its modernist scientific processing than by its ingredients.  I’m not an expert on feeding astronauts, but a wikipedia overview gives a sense that space food is culturally defined and specific to particular astronaut programs, even though it is generally dehydrated and vacuum sealed.  Commercially available space foods focus on methods of preserving, rather than ingredients themselves.  Even NASA’s webpage profile of Michele Perchonok, the Space Shuttle Food System Manager, notes that

Food is very important to today’s astronauts. It provides them with both nutrition and a comfort from home…As the shuttle food system manager, Perchonok is responsible for making space food taste good and be good for the crews.

Food tasting good and being comforting is a cultural matter, not a strictly nutritional one.  No human eats everything that is edible to humans (thus allowing me to co-edit – and shamelessly plug – a book such as this one).  I couldn’t find any evidence that quinua has actually been made part of the diet of U.S. astronauts, only that this was proposed in a 1993 NASA technical paper.  Nevertheless, the quinua-NASA connection has been much touted, and not only by President Morales.  Sites dedicated to health foods also highlight this connection (see here, here, here, here, and here, just to link to a few).

Invoking NASA lends scientific legitimacy that connects quinua to the technological future.  The ancient super-grain of the future brings superior health, melding traditional food and nutrition science.  But sending quinua directly into space (really or virutally) elides the actual existing commodity chains that link Bolivian quinua growers to U.S. quinua consumers.  Quinua becomes science fiction come true — the perfect nutrition for human progress writ large against the cosmos.

We (by which I mean U.S. consumers) have good reasons to want to ignore the realities of the quinua commodity chain.  Quinua tastes good, and it has taken off in U.S. markets.  I can now buy it in my rural PA grocery store.  It’s a great gluten-free alternative to wheat (for pastas, for example).  But what does all this mean for those who produce it?

The New York Times and Time have both reported that the foreign demand for quinua has made it too expensive for many Bolivians to buy.  In fact, the NYT cites evidence that malnutrition of children has climbed in quinua producing regions as quinua became more profitable to export.  Hardly the outcome we western quinua-lovers would wish for — to take the ancient grain of the future out of the mouths of its potential future farmers.

Some might point out that the transition in the Andes to cheaper and more processed foods (rice, wheat, sugar) is not new, but this is reinforced by price.  If people cannot afford to feed their children quinua, those children will not come to see it as an essential part of their cuisine.  There are complicated links betwee economic access and culinary desire.