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To Eat Quinoa or Not: As the Controversy Continues, Are We Even Asking the Right Questions?

The fight over the super grain has generated an important debate about our global food system.

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Peasants everywhere tend to have an intimate and reciprocal relationship with the natural world—known in the Andes as Pachamama. When this relationship begins to break down, it’s usually because peasants have few or no options. What’s missing from most northern media accounts of quinoa is a discussion of what the range of possible options might look like—that is, beyond the two unsavory extremes of dismal poverty on the one hand, and environmental destruction (invariably leading back to dismal poverty) on the other.

One of the rarely discussed alternative paths is agrarian reform. Bolivia, like most Latin American countries, has a highly unequal distribution of land, with thousands of farmers eking out a living on tiny highland plots, while wealthy elites (including many foreign investors) control enormous lowland plantations, primarily dedicated to export-oriented soy and sugarcane. Over the last few decades, this inequality has generated waves of rural migrants from highland regions to the lowlands, including tropical coca-growing areas, and to the swelling outskirts of cities like La Paz and Santa Cruz. It’s also fed a growing landless movement, now organized as the Bolivian MST (landless worker movement), modeled on the Brazilian example. This movement is actively pushing the Bolivian government to make good on its agrarian reform promises, as a solution to rural poverty and degradation.

Another option—and these are not mutually exclusive—would be to rebuild local food markets that have been decimated by decades of nefarious U.S. aid and trade policies. Might we envision a future in which cheap, highly subsidized U.S. wheat products don’t pour into Bolivia, directly undercutting producers of Andean foods in their own markets? This would require, of course, the political will and capacity to regulate imports (admittedly, import dependence and dietary changes are difficult things to undo). It would also require support for small farmers not only in producing commodities for export but, more importantly, for producing a wide variety of plants and animals for domestic consumption, in a way that is suitable to local ecologies. This is actually something Andean peasants are spectacularly good at—having produced food for thousands of years in one of the most diverse and challenging environments on earth. 

Bolivia has a number of laws in place (such as the recently passed Law for Mother Earth, Integrated Development and ‘Living Well’) demonstrating that political will exists on the part of President Evo Morales to promote food sovereignty and peasant production for local markets. But as University of California, Berkeley agroecologist Miguel Altieri notes: 

Discourse must now translate into action. A starting point would be to capitalize on the sustainable peasant production strategies that have stood the test of time—mobilizing indigenous knowledge and ancestral practices (use of animal manure, rotations and fallows, terrace construction, etc.) and spreading these experiences through horizontal, farmer to farmer exchanges.

So while there is no easy solution to the quinoa quandary—much less a solution driven by northern consumers—the issue has generated an important debate about our global food system. At its core, it’s a debate about which strategies are most effective for creating a just and sustainable food system. And 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.

 

Tanya Kerssen is Research Coordinator at Food First/Institute for Foodand Development Policy and the author of the book Grabbing Power: The New Struggles for Land, Food and Democracy in Northern Honduras (Food First Books 2013).

 
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