Uncomfortable connections: eating quinoa causing hunger in Bolivia

Posted March 23rd, 2011 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Uncomfortable connections: eating quinoa causing hunger in Bolivia

Fostering Ecological Hope
Today from Margaret Swedish:

Quinoa is all the rage among healthy eaters in this country, including vegetarians, folks buying organic, folks looking for alternatives to wheat-based carbs.

What if our new passion for quinoa is causing a sharp rise in hunger and malnutrition in Bolivia?

Chenopodium quinoa - Kurt Stueber, Wikipedia Commons

One of the priorities of this project is to help us see the connections between our lives and the multiple communities of which we are a part – eco-communities, human and social communities, economic communities…

We are not an ‘environmental’ group, our focus is ‘ecology,’ the web that connects the whole.

Within that whole, everything we do matters. In my book (see sidebar) I raise the moral and ethical issues embedded in these connections. If the choices I make affect the whole, then I have to start considering those choices, stop taking so much for granted (“what I do doesn’t matter, I am too small, my contribution is so insignificant”).

I also write that this is going to get more and more annoying, bothersome, burdensome, troubling,uncomfortable as the interlocking crises of our world become more serious, more threatening to our future – and as we become increasingly aware of the realities within our larger human community, thanks to global travel and all our communications technology.

We can watch the tragedy unfold in Japan from the moment the earthquake hits, see film after film of the tsunami itself, because now we are instantly linked to one another.

Therefore, the impacts of our choices, our lifestyle choices, also become vividly clear.

And so quinoa.

Seems the discovery of quinoa in the western affluent world is having an unintended consequence in Bolivia, the only place where it is grown being the Andes region of Latin America. It is an ancient food of the Incas rich in nutrients, a great healthy food, exotic, romantic, right? We have used it to replace other grains – but it is not a grain, as this linked article explains.  And as we have begun consuming it as a ‘hip’ food, exports from Bolivia have risen dramatically – and so has the price – right out of the price range of the very people who have depended upon it as a staple food.

I raise this as an example of all that is wrong with the global economy, the whims and fads of affluent consumers who buy something at their local Whole Foods or food co-op and don’t wonder at all where this new thing has come from.  Where was it grown, who grew it, what is the local impact of putting a crop on the export market, who raises it, processes it and ships it to us, who is making money off it, who is losing?

And when it comes to food – what is the impact of a local crop now raised for export on the domestic food market and the diets of people in the source region?

We don’t want to live like this, we don’t want to have to think about these things all the time. We don’t want the burden of conscience stalking us every time we go to the store.

But this is the world we have made, or allowed to be made. By creating an interlocked global marketplace, we have created exactly these questions about those interlocking relationships. Everything we consume is hooked into the market, and therefore every consumer choice we make has an impact within that global system.

If I buy the new iPad, my choice connects to ecologically destructive rare earth mineral mining, to the workers who do the mining, to the chemical waste created when I throw the hi-tech toy away, or to the children and other vulnerable people (mostly in China) who will take them apart with their bare hands, exposing them to the toxins, in the event that I recycle it.

We can’t escape these realities. My choice has no less impact if I make it in ignorance or out of a deliberate decision not to know.

And so the world now – the inescapable moral and ethical challenges within the global marketplace we humans have created, a market that has brought us such an abundance of consumer choices for our consideration while exploiting and impoverishing so many others around the world, while ecologically wrecking a good part of the planet.

Surely there is another way we humans could choose to keep this world livable, vibrant, and abundant for all.


From the UNICEF page on poverty in Bolivia:

Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Poverty affects the quality of life of the majority of the population, and restricts the right to enjoy and exercise the human rights of those affected.

All human beings have the right to aspire to satisfy their basic requirements. To be poor not only signifies incapacity to cover basic necessities, but also exclusion from the opportunity of developing one’s capacities to fulfill a productive and creative role in society, as well as having limited possibilities to make one’s own claims heard.


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