Back in 2013, we reached peak Comment is Free when Joanna Blythman wrote "Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?" She blamed everyone from vegans to fat cat exporters for pricing the superfood out of the reach of Andean peasants. Blythman's piece while strong on virtue signalling, was light on peer-reviewed research. In fact, since writing that piece two interesting papers have come out of the ether to show that her fears were unfounded. I hoped that the media had moved on from the Quinoa Guilt-Trip.
Not so, sadly. Channel 4 News put out a sensationalist report suggesting that Western demand for Quinoa was fuelling a malnutrition crisis in the Andes (despite the fact malnutrition rates have halved since 2007). In fact, it's got so bad that some Peruvians are eating greasy fish and chips (the horror!). Bizarrely, in a rush to guilt trip vegans and hipsters, they seemed to ignore the real story. That Peru is experiencing its coldest winter in over 100 years, a winter that's killed over 100 people (not to mention thousands of Alpacas).
What reason do we have to doubt Channel 4's report?
UC Berkeley economist Andrew Stevens looked into the diet of heavy Quinoa consuming regions of Peru. He found that Quinoa consumption was relatively unchanged in heavy consuming regions, and where there were shifts away from Quinoa consumption it was down to increased choice and changing tastes (maybe Andeans like fish and chips?) not price rises. In fact, Quinoa only made up about 4% of of a typical Peruvian household’s expenditure on food.
Quinoa farmers are some of the poorest people in Peru, but according to a study by Marc Bellamare, Seth Gitter, and Johanna Fajardo-Gonzalez, Quinoa price rises have had massive financial benefits to them. They find that as prices rose between 2004 to 2013, it boosted farmers' income and increased their welfare (measured in goods and services) by 46%. And these benefits didn't just go to farmers.
As Bellamare and Gitter write:
We find that increases in the purchase price of quinoa are associated with a significant increase in the welfare of the average household in areas where quinoa is consumed, which suggests that the quinoa price increase has had general equilibrium effects extending to non-producers.
Hopefully, Channel 4 news will follow up on their report, and let their viewers know the real facts. But I wouldn't hold out hope - some people never learn.