Can I have my quinoa and the Andean farmer eat it too?

“If you are dependent on people who don’t know you, who control the value of your necessities, you are not free, and you are not safe.”  Wendell Berry, “Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community.”

The irony of it is staggering and sobering – and, please, may it lead us to serious reconsideration of our economic habits and practices.

Quinoa – a beautifully simple grain, low in fat, rich in protein, nutritionally loaded, with a fashionable, exotic touch to it – a miracle gift to those concerned with marrying a diet for personal health along with a concern for low environmental impact living.  It is coveted by the well-intended as a new super-food and it’s celebrity status was marked by the UN declaring 2013 the Year of Quinoa.  Yet in another instance of the butterfly effect of the global farmer-quinoaeconomy, an article in the Guardian reports that this grain, a staple for Andean communities in Peru and Bolivia, is now so overpriced that local populations can’t afford to eat it, turning instead to low-cost alternatives (aka. junk food).

It’s enough to make you crazy – and it should because it seems another example of the economic confusion we call normal.  You know the old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over again but expecting different results.  We replicate this quinoa scenario over and over, raiding local communities through the global reach of a market economy and trusting the whole venture will turn out for the mutual benefit of all but with the same dispiriting results – local economies irrevocably altered, local ways of life disturbed and often damaged, local communities and cultures ignored.

The Guardian article observes that “the quinoa trade is yet another troubling example of a damaging north-south exchange, with well-intentioned health and ethics-led consumers here unwittingly driving poverty there.”  But it’s more than that – it seems another troubling example of a damaging economic order.

Or maybe it’s just all earnest hand-wringing in the face of inevitable economic change.  That’s what food-economics author and University of Toronto professor Pierre Desrochers claims – this is the typical speed-bump along the road of economic development that will bring some improvement in standards of living to subsistence economies.

But I hear a note of economic determinism in the professor’s words, a sense that there really is no standing in the way of such global economic development so might as well lean into the inevitable change.  I mostly lack the smarts to understand the economic complexities or the prophetic edge to speak like this often, but there’s an unmistakeable totalitarian vibe to this global economy.  It’s like the colonialist impulse all over, so that we, in the well-resourced west, can tap the resources of a far-flung geographic community with little, if any, consideration or forethought for the impact on that community, without naming human values and community needs that trump economic imperatives.

Wendell Berry, a true prophetic voice, writes that “the global economy does not exist to help communities and localities of the globe.  It exists to siphon the wealth of those communities and places into a few bank accounts.”  Read Mr. Berry – deeply and often.

All this leaves me convinced again something has to shift.  Economists out there, can we not imagine new economic practices and systems that serve the well-being of all, especially the poor?  It strikes me as morally and economically off to produce a local product in such a way that prices it out of reach for the very ones who cultivate it and depend upon it for basic living.  Something stinks in the system and I’m left overwhelmed by the scope.  I mean, seriously, how do you do no harm and transform a global economic order?  And that drives me to my knees, doing the one thing I can do confidently: praying for the coming of God’s Kingdom.  But I want that prayer to get me off my knees too, doing something to see that Kingdom come in our economic order.  Any suggestions?

Ah quinoa, I was just beginning to love you – but unless we can find a better way, I’m called to love my Andean neighbours more.

6 thoughts on “Can I have my quinoa and the Andean farmer eat it too?”

  1. Great post, Phil. There has to be a way for we in the North to enjoy this healthy agricultural product without impoverishing farmers in the south. Perhaps some sort of ‘fair trade’ model could improve the situation. In the reformational intellectual tradition, Bob Goudzwaard is a Christian economist who has been sounding the themes you here articulate for decades. See his books “Capitalism and Progress” and “Beyond Poverty and Affluence” among others. Wendell Berry is great, I use his book “The Unsettling of America” in the course I teach at ICS on Christianity and the Ecological Crisis. Of course, these are themes we are eager to discuss at the Centre for Philosophy, Religion, and Social Ethics as well. With your permission, I’d like to post a link to this blog post from ICS’ Facebook page.

    1. Ron – thanks much for stopping by. Happy for you to post the link. We’ll have to get together over a pint and talk about Berry and Goudzwaard. We had Goudzwaard and Brian McLaren a few years ago at our church in Calgary – always remember one line from Bob: “we’ll never know contentment until we know the meaning of enough.”

  2. Phil,

    This entry reminds me how effectively your blog serves as a mustard seed which expands our hearts for bigger issues.

    Thanks, pj

  3. Wee said, it is mind boggling to me how our actions can affect people a continent away. I was talking to my kids (while serving a beet and turnip concoction) about the locavore movement just the other day. No one was impressed, either with my talk or my meal. But shame on us if we don’t make changes based on compassionate understanding.

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