“I am having a hard time eating quinoa,” my daughter emailed me yesterday, “now that I have read that article saying it is ruining Bolivia.” For those unfamiliar with current dietary rages, quinoa is one of the three major food groups (along with Greek yoghurt and kale) for today’s upscale eaters. It first achieved prominence when NASA scientists determined it was the perfect food to serve astronauts in space. Since then it has come far from its Andean roots, where for centuries it was the staple of mountain peasants.
Now, unfortunately, the peasants can’t afford it. But the quintupling of quinoa prices has been a great boon for farmers and exporters, and it has had a significant impact on the local economies where it is grown. Naturally, farmers are planting more of it and there are signs of an emerging export-driven monoculture. Meanwhile, poor people are turning to white bread and noodles, which are cheaper and, it is said, taste better. Malnutrition rates are on the rise.
Sound familiar? The mandated use of ethanol was meant to break our dependence on foreign oil, produce cleaner gasoline and revive American agriculture, all by planting corn? One side effect was an estimated $6.5-billion spike in world food prices. Then there was the Soviet Union’s forced production of cotton (or “white gold”) for export, which poisoned the fish in the Aral Sea and reduced it to 10% of its original size. And, of course, McDonald’s, whose practices have changed agriculture everywhere and created the modern enigma of malnourished obesity.