Still Eating Quinoa

I’ve been meaning to return to blogging for a while—in fact, since I made it a New Year’s Resolution and, immediately thereafter, abandoned it as quickly as a new exercise regime.

Leave it to a not-at-all veiled attack on veganism to bring me back.  Periodically, friends forward me links obliquely encouraging me to reconsider my veganism.  First, it was the idiotic vegan parents who deprived their kid of breast-milk (“You wouldn’t make your kids be vegan…would you?”).  Then it was soy plantations causing deforestation in the Amazon.  Now it’s Bolivians going hungry, supposedly, because demand for quinoa from Western vegans has made the grain prohibitively expensive for them.

Just so we’re clear: the quinoa article is a complete farce.  Vegans are less than one percent of the U.S. population, so it’s not clear why “vegans”, as opposed to “people who eat quinoa”, are singled out.  The article’s follow-up claim that vegans should also feel bad about eating soy – because it “drives environmental destruction” in the Amazon – is actually so off-base that The Guardian added a footnote pointing out that 97% of soy imports go to animal feed.  Presumably, some of that soy goes to feed the cows that the author smugly concludes we can eat with a clear conscience.

This editorial wouldn’t even be worth talking about if it didn’t make a logical mistake that vegans, fair-trade enthusiasts, and farmers-market junkies do as well.  It’s the notion that our individual consumer choices actually cause and, in turn, can solve social problems.  The implicit narrative of the article—that I should feel bad for eating quinoa—assumes that there is some invisible hand that snatches the grain from someone else and gives it to me.

Take this to its logical conclusion, and apply it to a food that isn’t associated with a tiny, much-maligned dietary minority.  From 2005-2008, prices for wheat spiked 80%.  The absolute number of hungry people worldwide increased for the first time in decades.  So should we blame people who continued to eat bread during the crisis for the fact that others starved?  We could, but to do so would be naïve to the political and economic realities of our food system.  The food price spikes of 2008 happened because Goldman Sachs and other investment banks figured out they could make money by betting on grain futures, essentially cornering grain for which they had no real need.  Wheat prices went up in 2008 even though wheat farmers posted record harvests, making a mockery of your introduction to microeconomics textbook.

I’m not writing this as a defense of veganism.  If anything, the article reminds us that finding just commodities in an unjust system is impossible.  So long as 30-50% of food production winds up in the dumpster, you can be confident that your decision to abstain from quinoa / meat / gluten / whatever means that more of said commodity winds up in the trash – not that less is produced.  It’s also, then, a reminder that our “food politics” should involve more than just buying one thing over another.   In the meantime, berating for people for doing their best in a fucked-up situation simply offers comfort to those who would rather do nothing.

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