Global Food, Health, and Society

A Colby Community Website for ST297, Fall 2018

Author: Long Yu

Superfoods’ Dark Side: Increasing Vulnerability of Quinoa Farmers in Bolivia

While vegetarians and health fanatics in Western countries are promoting the intake of the superfood quinoa because of its high nutritional values, local Andean people in Bolivia and Peru can no longer afford to eat this staple food of theirs because of surging food prices (Blythman, 2013). Superfood are food items that are not only very nutritious, but which also claim to have exceptional health benefits. Nowadays, they are fashionable food like Golgi berries, chia seed, kale and etc. Being one of the world’s most popular health foods, quinoa (keen-wa) is well-known for its high nutritional values: it is gluten free, high protein, fibre and many other vitamins and minerals, and is considered to be one of the few food items that contain all nine essential amino acids (Gunnars, 2018). Although it is usually prepared like a grain, Quinoa is actually a pseudo-cereal that is related to the spinach, chard and beet family (Thomson, 2017).

In 2013, United Nations declared the year to be the International Year of Quinoa, demonstrating how this small, nutritious grain became a global favourite (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 2013). Nonetheless, behind all the buzz about this tiny seed hides a history of more than 7000 years (Winkel et al., 2016). A look at the history of quinoa will give us a perspective on how this crop come about, and how the growing demand for this healthy food affects the countries they are grown.

Quinoa is a tiny, yet nutritious seed that is one of the most popular healthy foods worldwide (Gunnars, 2018).

Quinoa is originally from South America, and has remained the staple food for indigenous people of the Andean region over centuries because of its fantastic adaptive qualities and high nutritional values (Ruiz et al., 2014). Currently, the main producers of quinoa in the world are Bolivia and Peru, together producing more than 80% of quinoa in the world, followed by Ecuador, USA and China (Bazile et al., 2016). Quinoa has always been considered as a neglected crop – its cultivation was mainly for domestic consumption and was considered as a “peasants’ food with no commercial value (Chelleri et al., 2015). However, since the 1970s, quinoa’s high nutritional values caught the interest of American and European consumers as an exotic and healthy superfood (Chelleri et al., 2015). The ‘discovery’ of the crop resulted in a rise in global demand for the crop, and this led to a rapid increase in its market price (Ruiz et al., 2014). The price of quinoa has dramatically increased by 600% from 2000 to 2008 alone, as shown in figure 1.

Figure 1. Quinoa production and price (2001-08) (Ofstehage, 2012).

The rise in quinoa’s market price led to an increase in the production of the crop as farmers saw it as an economic opportunity. Yet, quinoa producing countries like Bolivia still remained to be one of the poorest and most food insecure countries in South America (Jacobsen, 2011; Hall, 2016). In fact, the national consumption of quinoa in Bolivia actually fell by 4% from 2006 to 2011 despite a rise in production (Hall, 2016). With a population of 9.1 million, Bolivia is considered as the poorest country in the Andean region. Almost 80% of the rural population in the country live below the poverty line (Jacobsen, 2011). This paradox points to an important aspect of quinoa production chain that needs to be discussed.

Under the rising global demand for quinoa, Bolivian farmers face pressures from different sides: increasing their production to accommodate for a growing international market while safeguarding traditional knowledge, preserving biodiversity, meeting household needs and making a profit. On one hand, farmers hope to benefit from the growing quinoa trade, but on the other hand, they are made vulnerable by this rising trend in different ways.

A Bolivian farmer harvesting organic quinoa in his fields in Puerto Perez, Bolivia (Cherfas, 2016).

Referring to figure 1, the price for quinoa has risen dramatically, particularly between 2006 to 2008, while the production of quinoa has not increased as much as its price. The high price of quinoa encouraged farmers to sell their better-quality quinoa and retain the less nutritious ones for the domestic market. In some cases, farmers would even sell most of their valuable quinoa for self-consumption, and turn to cheaper and less nutritious alternatives (Ofstehage, 2012). The increasing price of quinoa also made it difficult for local people to purchase the staple food that they had always consumed, forcing them to abandon quinoa for other staples such as rice and pasta. Although the rise in global demand for quinoa brings income to certain segment of the farm economy, it has affected the food security situation of the Bolivian population.

Figure 2. Domestic consumption, production, and export of quinoa in Bolivia (1995-2010) (Jacobsen, 2011).

According to figure 2, while the export of quinoa has increased from around 1998 to 2009, domestic consumption has decreased. The major foods that contribute to the daily caloric intake of Bolivians have been shifting from quinoa to bread and pasta (Borda, 2013). The boom of quinoa can be seen as a saving grace for farmers as they can sell them at a higher price, but at the cost of local people’s accessibility to the staple that has been part of their food culture for centuries.

Furthermore, increasing demand for quinoa and globalization is changing land use and increasing the crop’s genetic homogeneity (Ruiz et al., 2014; Chelleri et al., 2015). Since quinoa real is the most commonly purchased and consumed type of quinoa, many farmers turn to mono-cropping to gain more profit (Chelleri et al., 2015). The change in land use threatens the genetic diversity of quinoa and its associated human culture (Bazile et al., 2016). The rapid expansion of quinoa production and entry of new producers is threatening both the ecological sustainability and the social integrity of local communities. The rise of quinoa production has also led to a shift from traditional small-scale manual cropping to large-scale mechanised cropping methods (Winkel et al., 2016). The transition from an integrated farming systems to a more mechanised system with reduced biodiversity and increased use of tillage has not only changed the landscape, but also put pressure on the quality of soil (Ofstehage, 2012). With the worldwide demand for quinoa increasing rapidly, we should be more aware of its consequences and not turn a blind eye on the social and environmental justice issues it raises.

 

References:

  1. Bazile D., Jacobsen SE., Verniau A. (2016). The global expansion of quinoa: trends and limits. Frontiers in Plant Science. 7(622)
  2. Blythman, J, (2013, January 16). Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa? The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jan/16/vegans-stomach-unpalatable-truth-quinoa
  3. Borda, C. (April, 2013). Bolivia’s Nutritional Status. Retrieved from http://oxfamibis.dk/sites/default/files/media/pdf_global/bolivia_pdf_files/report_-_bolivias_nutritional_status.pdf
  4. Chelleri L., Municci G., Skrimizea E. (2015). Does community resilience decrease social-ecological vulnerability? Adaptation pathways trade-off in the Bolivian Altiplano. Regional Environmental Change. 16, 2229-2241
  5. Cherfas, J. (2016, March 31). Your Quinoa Habit Really Did Help Peru’s Poor. But There’s Trouble Ahead. National Public Radio. Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/03/31/472453674/your-quinoa-habit-really-did-help-perus-poor-but-theres-trouble-ahead
  6. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. (2013). 2013 International Year of Quinoa. Retrieved from: http://www.fao.org/quinoa-2013/en/
  7. Gunnars, K. (2018, June 28). 11 Proven Health Benefits of Quinoa. Retrieved from: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/11-proven-benefits-of-quinoa
  8. Hall, A. (2016, April 21st). The economics of quinoa: superfoods’ dark side. Retrieved from http://economicstudents.com/2016/04/the-economics-of-quinoa-superfoods-dark-side/
  9. Jacobsen SE. (2011). The situation for quinoa and its production in Southern Bolivia: from economic success to environmental disaster. Journal of Agronomy and Crop Science. 197(5), 390-399
  10. Ofstehage A. (2012). The construction of an alternative quinoa economy: balancing solidarity, household needs, and profit in San Agustin, Bolivia. Agriculture and Human Values. 29(4), 441-454
  11. Ruiz B. K., Biondi S., Oses R., Acuna-Rodriguez,  I., Antognoni, F., Martinez-Mosqueira, A. E., Coulibaly, A., Canahua-Murillo, A., Pinto, M., Zurita-Silva, A., Bazile, D., Jacobsen SE., Molina-Montenegro, A. M. (2014). Quinoa biodiversity and sustainability for food security under climate change. A review. Agronomy for Sustainable Development. 34(2), 1-11
  12. Thomson, J. (2017, June 13). Quinoas Seed or Grain Debate Ends Right Here. Retrieved from: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/quinoa-is-not-a-grain_n_59380558e4b0aba888ba7b44
  13. Winkel T., Bommel P., Chevarria-Lazo M., Cortes G., Del Castille C., Gasselin P., Leger F., Nina-Laura JP., Rambal S., Tchit M., Tourrant, J-F., Vacher J-J., Vassas-Toral A., Vierira-Pal M., Joffre R. (2016). Panarchy of an indigenous agroecosystem in the globalized market: the quinoa production in the Bolivian Altiplano. Global Environmental Change. 39, 195-204

 

 

Food Will Win the War

If you are a millennial foodie like me, chances are that you have followed five or more food accounts on Instagram, Facebook, or YouTube, have at least two apps on your phone that help you find the best restaurants wherever you go, or have food shows like Chef’s Table and Ugly Delicious recommended to you by Netflix based on your watch history. Nowadays, we are constantly bombarded with imageries of food of different kinds wherever we go, whether we are walking down the streets, shopping in malls, or scrolling on the internet at home. Regardless of being a cook or not, food is a very integral part of our lives, and it is this pervasiveness of food in our daily lives that makes the representation of food in media an implicit yet favourable tool of propaganda. With the abundance of movies, documentary films, TV shows, photography, and advertisements related to food that are present in today’s society, it is hard to imagine and evaluate the political significances of any one particular representation of food. However, if we go back in time to the periods of World War I and II, we can find a lot of straightforward examples of how food is being used as a tool of propaganda in media.

In this post, I will bring us back to a key moment in the history of food media by examining the short film Food Will Win the War, an animation made by the Disney Studios for the United States Department of Agriculture in 1942, which is during the World War II. By using food as a symbolic field to assert national power and identity, and to boost a sense of patriotism, the short animation film is an epitome of how food media could reflect and shape American ideologies in terms of food production and consumption.

Food as Weapon

Although the short film is produced to reassure Americans that US was growing food for both domestic use as well as supplies to the Allies, and to praise the hard work and sacrifice of farmers, it is not hard to find the political messages embedded in the film. First of all, the militarisation of food is an obvious theme throughout the film. It transforms the image of food as not just energy fuel for daily activities, but also weapons that could help America and the Allies win the war against the Axis, as suggested by the title of the film. The film is quick to evoke a sense of patriotism at the very beginning, where the narrator says that the “American agriculture” is the light of hope in the darkest hour of the World War. This is followed by visuals showing the amount of farmland in US is greater than all of Europe combined, and that the number of farmers in the country is twice as many as that of the soldiers in Axis (Figure 1.1 and 1.2). The constant juxtaposition of military machines like tanks and battleships with farming equipment such a planting machines, milking columns and potato diggers further emphasises the idea of food as weapons and suggest that the farmers are just as important as the soldiers fighting in the war.

Figure 1.1. Visualisation of the amount of farmlands in US compared to the sizes of European countries combined (Screenshot from YouTube)

Figure 1.2. American farmers are praised for their hard work and sacrifices (Screenshot from YouTube)

The sense of American imperialism is also apparent through a series of hyperbolic images that shows the statistics of what US farmers produce in a year using visual images of famous landmarks around the world. For example, to help audience visualise the fifty-two billion and eight hundred million pounds of wheat that US famers could produce in a year, the film shows that “if all this wheat was made into flour, they’d be enough to snow under the entire German Panzer Army”, which is a comparison that puts the Axis power at a weaker position.  The film also tells the audience that US farmers produce two billion, eight hundred and fifty million bushels of corn a year, but this number is very abstract until we see hear that if all that corn is “grown into one huge ear, it would make a bridge from London to the Black Sea”, accompanied by an image of a giant corn descending across the whole Europe. This is another example of how the film uses exaggerated visuals to assert America’s dominance over other countries. Even though different types of food are mentioned in the short film, but they are not praised for their effects on human body and health, but are reduced merely as a tool for America to advance their power during the war.

Figure 2. “…if all this wheat was made into flour, they’d be enough to snow under the entire German Panzer Army..” (Screenshot from Youtube)

Figure 3. If all that corn is “grown into one huge ear, it would make a bridge from London to the Black Sea.” (Screenshot from YouTube)

Quantity over quality

The images of grotesque and exaggerated amplification of food sizes compared to famous world landmarks also show how excessiveness is hailed as indicator of success rather than its quality. The emphasis on quantity over equality both reflects and shapes a culture where the ideas of abundance and excess are seen as solutions to the problem of hunger and signs of national security amidst the devastation of the World War. For example, the films illustrate how the yield of vegetables in US is sufficient enough to cover the Great Wall of China, and excessive loaves of bread baked from American flour could form a series of pyramids the length of Suez Canal. In many ways, the film promotes a sense of security and success through material abundance, which is an ideology that underlies many agricultural developments in US in the next few decades.

Power of machinery over nature

Another recurrent theme in the film is the use of machines for food production. The narrator attributes the success in agriculture to farmers who are ready for sacrifices, but this would not be possible without the “farm machinery, battalions of combines, regiments of truck, divisions of corn pickers, potato diggers, planting machines, columns of milking machines”. Visually we see numbers of machines harvesting and producing vast quantity of food effectively.

Figure 3. “Farm machinery, battalions of combines, regiments of truck, divisions of corn pickers, potato diggers, planting machines, columns of milking machines…” (Screenshot from YouTube)

After World War II ended in 1945, the urgency to supply huge amount of food for soldiers in the war front was no longer needed, but the idea of agricultural productivity and abundance as an indicator of success remained. A few years after the war came the beginning of the Green Revolution, which was a period of time when food production in places like US, Mexico, and South America were greatly increased due to deployment of technological advancements, including the development of high-yield varieties of grains, mechanisation of production, and the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers.

The analysis of Food Will Win the War gives us a glimpse of a key moment in food history that reflected a changing culture in food production and consumption in US. Nonetheless, the ideologies promoted in the film are not just products of World War II, but are continuation of historical ideals. The phrase “food will win the war” was in fact the slogan of an agriculture campaign led by Herbert Hoover, the head of United States Food Administration during World War I. Even after the World Wars ended, the spirit of “food will win the war” seemed to have continued, manifested in the ‘war’ of increasing food production around the world through industrialisation and technological advancements, forever changing the way we eat.

 

References:

Disney Studios. Food Will Win the War (1942). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAh_H1LFZbs.

Bossert, D. “Food Will Win the War: The Disney Way” Cartoon Research, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/foods-that-make-up-most-of-the-calories-american-consume-2015-2

Grey, Houston S. “‘A banquet for all the world’: democracy and consumerism in Disney’s Food Will Win the War” Critical Studies in Media Communication 35.4 (2018): 363-375.

Tunc, Emin T. “Less Sugar, More Warships: Food as American Propaganda in the First World War” War in History 19.2 (2012): 193-216.