Sustainability, Hunger and Consumerism: The Quinoa Debate

Quinoa

Recently in the media and blogosphere, debate has been raging over the negative impact Western demand for quinoa (pronounced ‘keen-wah’) has had on populations in countries where it is a staple food. Much of the blame has been dumped on vegans and vegetarians, for everything from malnutrition to soil erosion and property disputes. While many concerns raised are valid, and this isn’t an issue to be taken lightly, it seems to me as though we’re crying over a scratch while ignoring the bullethole. And fingers are being pointed in the wrong direction.

In the past I’ve discussed how food choices affect sustainability, and just this week I wrote an article the impact on the availability of food for people living in poverty and starvation. But before I launch into those topics, I do think it worth addressing the quinoa question.

This article was published in The Guardian. Among other things, it states that as a result of the increasing popularity of quinoa in affluent societies, people in countries such as Bolivia and Peru where quinoa is a staple food, can no longer afford to eat it, and are forced to eat junk food because it’s cheaper. The author implies that the majority of this consumption is attributable to vegetarians and vegans. She raises the tired topic of soy production as comparison:

“Soya, a foodstuff beloved of the vegan lobby as an alternative to dairy products, is another problematic import, one that drives environmental destruction [see footnote]. Embarrassingly, for those who portray it as a progressive alternative to planet-destroying meat, soya production is now one of the two main causes of deforestation in South America”

The author tops it all off by saying that in regards to energy wasted on production and transport, “omnivores have it easy” (i.e. they don’t cause as much harm), while “the shopping baskets of vegetarians and vegans swiftly clock up the food miles, a consequence of their higher dependency on products imported from faraway places”.

Where do I start? Two guys working on a documentary about quinoa production in Bolivia have written an open letter, in which they relate first hand experience that contradicts the claim that it’s quinoa’s increasing value changing Bolivian eating habits. They suggest that as a result of increasing wealth, Western foods are eaten more as a status symbol or trendy option:

“As farmers become more well off, their eating habits become diversified as they can afford to eat other foods. They CHOOSE to eat pasta or rice because of its increased availability and, to them, because of its novelty. In Bolivia, the social stigma is that quinoa is still a poor person’s food, not a Whole Foods hot commodity… as they gain more wealth, they look to eat the foods of those who they perceive as having a higher social standing. The situation is far more complex than simply saying “they can’t afford to eat their own grain”.

western food

Other writers support this stance. It’s also argued that a reduction in demand for quinoa would undermine these economies, just as they are starting to really grow. The high prices for which farmers can sell quinoa is helping them improve their quality of living. It’s unfortunate that Western junk food is growing in popularity, but that’s not because the vegans are gobbling up all of the quinoa.

As far as vegans and vegetarians being the main consumers of quinoa, I don’t think this is accurate. As a regular reader of restaurant reviews (alliteration!), it would appear that kale, chia, quinoa, and all manner of trendy ‘superfoods’ frequent the menus of fashionable restaurants. In my experience, on a typical menu, you might see one or two veg dishes for every ten meat dishes. Fancy ingredients like quinoa show up pretty evenly across all. For the at-home-cooks, again, with our growing ‘foodie’ culture, specialty food consumption is hardly dominated by vegans. Veggie burgers, tofu and legumes? Yes, I expect that vegans buy more of these. Quinoa? Not likely, meat eaters like their trendy ‘health’ foods just as much.

It feels like a waste of breath even getting into the soy argument, but since the author decided to drag it up, I’ll simply point what the footnote that was added to the article later says: 97% of soy produced is used to feed livestock. Da-dummmm-cha.

And finally, food mileage. While the steak that the writer of that article was choking on may have been from a cow raised in the factory farm next door, she’s forgotten about all of the feed that went into turning that calf into a fully-grown, steak-sized animal. In an article from the World Watch Institute, the following quote gives some impression of just how much ‘mileage’ goes into a piece of meat:

“begin the cycle with growing the grain to feed the cattle, which requires a heavy input of petroleum- based agricultural chemicals. There’s the fuel required to transport the cattle to slaughter, and thence to market. Today, much of the world’s meat is hauled thousands of miles. And then, after being refrigerated, it has to be cooked.

It takes the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline to produce a pound of grain-fed beef in the United States. Some of the energy was used in the feedlot, or in transportation and cold storage, but most of it went to fertilizing the feed grain used to grow the modern steer or cow…. To provide the yearly average beef consumption of an American family of four requires over 260 gallons of fossil fuel…

… It takes, on average, 28 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of meat protein for human consumption, [whereas] it takes only 3.3 calories of fossil- fuel energy to produce 1 calorie of protein from grain for human consumption”

feeding cows

I do think it’s worthwhile trying to shop for locally grown produce, both to support local communities and to reduce environmental damage. But we’ve also got to be realistic and practical. I don’t usually buy produce that’s labelled as a product of another country, but even when I do, less ‘mileage’ is clocked up by consuming a small proportion of imported plant food than by consuming meat.

In response, another writer has written an article for The Guardian. She points out that the Bolivian people are just a small proportion of the hungry or starving people in the world. And the inefficiency of feeding plant food to animals is exacerbating the problem overall. In fact:

“The world’s cattle alone consume enough food to sustain nine billion people, which is what the world’s human population is projected to be by 2050.”

This is in line with what I talked about in my piece on Healthy Living Blogs, that to address shortages of food in the world, an effective strategy is to eat plants instead of animals. Again, to quote from the World Watch Institute article:

“say we have 20,000 kcal [kilocalories] of corn. Assume that we feed it to cattle (as we do with about 70 percent of the grain produced in the U.S.)… The cow will produce about 2,000 kcal of usable energy… (assuming 10 percent efficiency; the efficiency is actually somewhat higher than that, but 10 percent is easy to work with and illustrates the point reasonably). That 2,000 kcal of beef would support one person for a day, assuming a 2,000 kcal per day diet”

Now if you fed that 20,000 kcal to a person directly, how many days will it last?

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So, taking a step back from quinoa, let’s just consider some of the other issues. On average, human consumption of animal flesh has more than doubled in the past fifty years, which, when coupled with our ever-increasing population, means we eat a lot of meat. More and more, this is becoming a problem. This is what the World Watch Institute has to say:

“as environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future—deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease”

and in The Guardian

“According to a United Nations report, the meat industry is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global”, and the UN has concluded that a global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change.”

environmental sustainability

No one expects the world to turn vegan. In his excellent book Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer doesn’t argue that the only solution is to give up meat entirely; in fact entire chapters are written in support of the ethical and sustainable farming practices of people he meets who produce meat in a way that minimises harm. Despite already being vegan, I feel that I could have read that book as an omnivore, agreed with him entirely, and continued to be an omnivore – albeit a far more conscientious one. Putting aside the ethical question of animal rights or welfare, from a sustainability standpoint I don’t think there is anything wrong with eating a small amount of locally produced meat, raised on locally grown feed.

Of course meat is more expensive that way, but so it should be. If the price of meat at Woolworths included the cost of chemical-free locally-sourced feed, truly humane living and slaughtering conditions (humane slaughtering – oxymoron? In Eating Animals there is a thought-provoking interview with a vegan who designs slaughterhouses), effective treatment of waste, good working conditions and wages for employees, and so on, meat would be far more expensive than it currently is. Our problem as a society is that we have become used to consuming animal flesh for breakfast, lunch and dinner, creating a market for unscrupulous companies to find ways to produce as much meat as possible at the lowest possible cost.

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Whether it’s quinoa, coffee, cheese or steak, I guess what it comes down to is awareness and accepting responsibility. When I became vegan, in an appalled tone a colleague said, “but that means you have to think about everything you eat!” I replied, “don’t you?” If there is a choice to be made that affects the others, then I believe it’s our responsibility to get informed and give it thought. There are many reasons why I chose to be vegan, and there are many reasons why every one of us makes the food choices that we do (whether we are conscious of those reasons or not). But when it comes to questions of environmental sustainability and adequate food resources, Michael Pollan said it best: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

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9 thoughts on “Sustainability, Hunger and Consumerism: The Quinoa Debate

  1. I just came across your blog while looking for healthy vegetarian recipes. (I have eaten meat all my life, but decided in the last few months to drastically cut down and to think more about what I eat in terms of sustainability and animal welfare) This article is very well written, presenting a balanced point of view and intelligently refuting what was obviously a one sided opinion piece disguised as ‘journalism’. The information you’ve presented has inspired me to continue towards omitting meat from my diet all together. Educational and inspiring. Thank you.

  2. What a brilliant article! Really interesting. I swing between vegetarian and omnivore – basically just listen to my body and feed it what it needs. I agree that people should think more about what they are eating and where it comes from.

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