In a question session regarding Budget 2018, our respected Prime Minister Dato’ Seri Najib Razak claimed that he substituted rice with quinoa for health reasons. This post is not to condemn Najib, which netizens have done a great deal of it. This post is to highlight and to create awareness on how other under-privileged citizens are eating. While there are plenty of Malaysians (definitely not only our PM) who can afford eating quinoa, there is a large number of people, including me who are struggling to make ends meet, and have to survive on so-called “peasant food“.
What is Quinoa?
I think we need to understand what is this ancient diet before delving further. The part of the quinoa plant that we eat is the seed — it’s not a grain. It grows from a plant in the goosefoot family, which also produces edibles such as chard and spinach. Twenty years ago, NASA researchers sung its praises as potential astronaut chow, mainly for its superior nutrient density. UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation hails it as “the only plant food that contains all the essential amino acids, trace elements and vitamins and contains no gluten.”
Quinoa is one of the few crops that thrives in harsh, unpredictable climates. After all, it originated in the Bolivian Altiplano, known to have over 200 frost days and severe droughts. While many countries are jumping on the quinoa train trying to ramp up production, results have yet to be as good as Bolivia or Peru.
In reality, encouraging “healthy foods” such as the now trendy quinoa are having great impacts in areas where we never think of. Starting 1990’s, Andean smallholder farmers reestablish traditional quinoa production for export markets. Nowadays, the price that farmers get for their crop almost tripled since 2006, therefore quinoa has now become the lifeline for the Bolivian people. However, the ‘lifeline‘ here is not for local consumption anymore.
The economics are simple: “As the price has risen quinoa is consumed less and less in Bolivia. It’s worth more to the producers to sell it or trade it for pasta and rice. As a result, they’re not eating it any more.” In other words, farmers are starting to see quinoa as something that is too valuable for self-consumption — they can use the proceeds from selling to buy cheaper, but less nutritious staples like rice. There’s also a status issue—quinoa was once a subsistence product, and when people pull out of subsistence mode, there’s a tendency to switch to “higher-status foods”, even if they are less healthy.
Then there are environmental issues. As demand for quinoa skyrocketing, farmers are scrambling for new land to cultivate to take advantage of higher prices. The push is squeezing out conventional sustainable agriculture, and putting serious pressure on soil fertility. In a short period of time, quinoa has gone from a local staple to a global commodity. “When you transform a food into a commodity, there’s inevitable breakdown in social relations and high environmental cost,” said Tanya Kerssen, an analyst for Oakland-based Food First.
In terms of diplomatic relations, Bolivia and Peru are at odds about quinoa farming practices. Bolivia used to dominate quinoa exports, but recently Peru has been climbing the scales. Bolivian farmers are unhappy about the way Peruvian farmers are ramping up production, using factory farming practices and heavy amounts of pesticides while driving down the price of the crop. The crashing price of quinoa might push Bolivian farmers back to poverty that they have escaped. Take a glimpse at coffee crisis in Vietnam.
How Others are Eating?
Now let us take a look at how people who cannot afford quinoa are eating (after quinoa becomes a global commodity of course).
I have never tasted quinoa, and I don’t think I can afford it any time soon. However, while I am struggling to make ends meet, I am also working on projects trying to make some social impacts. Please do support us, and I wish you to be able to afford some quinoa soon.