We Need To Talk About Quinoa

There’s been somewhat of a stir in the Warwick online food-activism scene in recent weeks following the publication of an article which smugly asked ‘can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?’ The article purported to explain the recent spike in the price of quinoa – a grain grown extensively in South America and now trading at a record $3000 a tonne – by citing the demand from western consumers, specifically vegans:

The appetite of countries such as ours for this grain has pushed up prices to such an extent that poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom it was once a nourishing staple food, can no longer afford to eat it. Imported junk food is cheaper (The Guardian, 16.01.13, Joanna Blythman).

The article is irritating on a number of levels, not least because of the attitude it adopts towards vegans: that of seeking to discredit a group known, generally speaking, for their earnest (if not always perfect) lifestyle-based critique of the global food system. This particular issue I will return to later, for, sadly, the most disturbing thing about the article is not its anti-vegan polemic, but rather its criminal ignorance of the historical causes behind food price fluctuations, in which quinoa is now playing a significant role.

The global food system is just that: a system. A system whose components are delicately interrelated, and often, in other and more problematic senses, frequently and destructively conflictual. What follows is an account of the factors commonly at play in the trade prices of food commodities in general, though specifically those commodities closely related to staple foods like grains (maize, wheat, rice, quinoa, etc.), oil seed (soy, rape seed, palm, etc.), and animal products (meat, milk, cheese, etc.). By way of organising this explanation I will describe what I see as three progressively wider ‘horizons’ of influence with regard to food commodity pricing, beginning at the point of production and consumption and extending to the widest of all horizons, the climate itself.

1. Scarcity

Livestock

Many may already be aware of the extent to which cereals, oil seed, and other such staple crops are diverted to feed livestock. The World Resources Institute, for example, estimates the total percentage of the global cereal harvest which goes into livestock feed at 37%. In the UK the figure is actually more extreme:

Cereals are a major source of nutrition for pigs, poultry, dairy cows and for beef cattle in intensive systems. Livestock consume more than half of the 20 million tonnes of cereals consumed in the UK: over 50% of wheat and over 60% of barley (Food Climate Research Network report, 2008).

The offending article itself admitted (in an addendum) that 97% of all soya produced globally goes to feed livestock, citing a report by the UN from 2006. And these percentages are only set to increase. A 2009 International Food Policy Research Institute report has estimated that meat consumption will rise in the developed world by 14% by 2050 and in the developing world by 46% (that is, from 88kg and 28kg per capita, per year, to 100kg and 41kg, respectively). That the same report also indicates this figure may be considerably lower given the constraining effects of climate change is cold comfort indeed. On the subject of climate change I will say more later, for now the salient point is that these consumption patterns have the obvious effect of decreasing the availability of basic food commodities and hence raising their overall market value. Furthermore, it is well known that the ‘energy return on energy invested’ ratios for meat are costly in the extreme. According to a Meat and Livestock Commission report of 2007, for beef cattle the calorific ratio of feed energy to animal protein can vary between 1:5 and 1:10 (depending on the breed in question). In a world in which around one billion people go to bed hungry everyday (FAO, 2010) such a persistent extravagance is simply beyond comprehension.

Biofuels

Livestock feed is not the only market force increasing grain scarcity and exacerbating staple food price concerns. Perhaps one of the most controversial issues to emerge in recent years in the food scarcity discourse is that of biofuels, an issue whose connection to livestock feed is rarely, if ever, fully appreciated. At present the rush to grow crops for biofuels is one of the principal factors that have led to raised feed prices since, as already suggested, the available supply of livestock feeds has thereby been reduced. Biofuels, once heralded as the salvation to all our fuel security concerns, are now an utter anathema in many circles, and combined with our livestock addiction any number of fresh catastrophes await. As one report puts it,

If we continue to demand both biofuels and animal protein produced from feed grains then one or all of three consequences will occur. One possibility is that more land will be cleared to accommodate the additional demand. Alternatively, increased inputs will be applied to increase productivity. Both approaches may lead to increases in GHG emissions; lost carbon sequestration from the former; more energy and fertiliser emissions from the latter. A third alternative is that land used for less commercially profitable crops will be taken over. These types of crops will then either be grown on marginal land (lost carbon sequestration) or production will simply cease, with damaging consequences for poorer people who tend to rely on them (FCRN, 2008).

At present the United States uses about “13 per cent of global corn production for biofuels” and “about 37 per cent of this year’s corn crop is earmarked for ethanol production”. As ever, it leaves one wondering what staple crops, if any, will remain for human consumption. Donald Mitchell, in his 2008 report to the World Bank, argues that “the large increase in biofuel production in the U.S. and the E.U. was the most important factor behind the food crisis”. In short, livestock and biofuels are exacerbating an already beleaguered food system by putting greater demands on the limited arable land available and taking food away from where it is most needed; grains like quinoa are simply being sucked into this vacuum, and their rising prices reflect this. However, as has historically been the case, and despite this almost intolerable injustice, a tiny but powerful minority have nonetheless found a way to profit from this situation. Indeed, it is the consequences of their profit to which I now turn.

2. Food commodity speculation

The second horizon of influence, unsurprisingly, is global finance. According to a UN report, as a result of the 2008 food price crisis “at least 40 million people around the world were driven into hunger and deprivation”. During this period food prices rose by 83%, “with maize prices nearly tripling, wheat prices increasing by 127%, and rice prices by 170%”. Alongside the production and consumption factors described above, one theory which has emerged to explain the particularly acute nature of recent food crises is the proliferation of food commodity ‘speculation’. In simple terms, commodity speculation involves the purchase of commodity derivatives (financial units of value, like stocks, derived from underlying assets). These derivatives are bought by investors in the hope that their future value will increase (in this case due to food shortages). The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, found that in the period immediately before the food crisis

the number of outstanding contracts in maize futures [food commodity derivatives] increased from 500,000 in 2003 to almost 2.5 million in 2008. Holdings in commodity index funds ballooned from US$ 13 billion in 2003 to US$ 317 billion by 2008

Though, as we have seen, the promotion of biofuels and other supply shocks play their own role in the global food system, as de Schutter suggests, “they set off a giant speculative bubble in a strained and desperate global financial environment”. At the height of the 2008 food crisis these underlying problems were then “blown out of all proportion by large institutional investors who, faced with the drying up of other financial markets, entered commodity futures markets on a massive scale”. The blame here, quite simply, lies squarely on the culture of global finance: in manipulating derivatives, financiers enjoy an incredible flexibility. Derivatives of this sort facilitate what is known as the “free trading of risk components”, meaning that traders are able to avoid almost all accountability, either financially or morally speaking. Indeed, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reports that only 2% of all food commodities futures contracts result in the delivery of the underlying physical commodity. As de Schutter puts it, “this makes trading such futures attractive to investors who have no interest in the commodity, but only in making a speculative gain”. The result is a culture of profound disconnection from the life changing effect of these fluctuations. De Schutter’s recommendations which have followed his various reports have, accordingly, sought to emphasise that millions of lives are effected, often detrimentally, by these kind of financial mechanisms. Yet if financial activities of this kind work to catalyse underlying problems with the food system there is yet one more even more powerful horizon of influence beyond the financial.

3. Climate Change

This ‘master catalyser’ is my third and final horizon of influence: the climate itself. 2012 was somewhat of a watershed year in global credulity toward the observable effects of climate change. Widespread damage due to flooding, extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy, wildfires, and pandemic droughts were being corroborated by increasingly disturbing meteorological data. As Bill McKibben pointed out in his article, ‘The Terrifying Maths of Climate Change’,

June broke or tied 3,215 high-temperature records across the United States. That followed the warmest May on record for the Northern Hemisphere – the 327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.

Arable farming was the first to show the impacts of these unprecedented weather patterns. Record crop failures ensued, affecting (as the image below demonstrates) the overwhelming majority of the US’s major growing areas.

arable farming us

To ask why this is happening is, arguably, to bring us back to where we began: the global livestock industry. Though the emissions thought to be responsible for global warming are numerous in type and origin, agriculture is an area that accounts for a disproportionately large quantity of them. It has been estimated in a report by the FAO that, worldwide, the livestock industry accounts for 18% of GHG emissions. Though there remains a strong argument for an on-going role for livestock in the future of agriculture, the scale of their current usage is beyond defence, particularly given the both direct and indirect effects they are having on the global capacity to produce food. As even one of the most conservative reports on the matter suggests ‘with respect to GHG emissions and other concerns such as water and biodiversity, [the drawbacks of the livestock industry] far outweigh the benefits’. On this basis the same report recommends a drastic reduction in meat consumption (as much as 30%) by 2050, if even the most modest GHG emissions targets have any chance of being met.

*

In her article, Joanna Blythman claimed consumers of quinoa and soy products should be “embarrassed”, implying she had an insight into the food system that we (or, rather, vegans) were unable – or even unwilling – to acknowledge. The reality is far different. It is the article’s author, in fact, who dismally failed to appreciate the basic workings of the global economy. As much as I wish it were true, the combined market force of all the vegans in the world is still not enough to displace that of the transnational agri-business giants and loosen their vice-like grip on the global production of food. Significantly, the UK government has no current plans to undertake a road map for the meat industry, even though its own commissioned research highlights very clearly the major contribution that meat makes to GHG emissions. Being a vegan is still one of the most radical things one can do in this regard. Forgoing quinoa won’t necessarily help the Peruvians and Bolivians recently plunged into food poverty; however, engaging in the discourse on how to move away from a demonstrably insane food system – one destructively addicted to livestock and biofuel production, and permissive of irresponsible financial speculation in an increasingly unstable global weather system – is an absolute necessity. Cutting out meat and dairy from your diet just so happens to be a fairly easy (not to mention personally engaging) way to enter this debate.

Chris Maughan

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One thought on “We Need To Talk About Quinoa

  1. Hi Chris,

    Thanks for taking the time to point out the fundmental errors in the Guardian article. Although I agree with your points about the food system, I think Joanna Blythma does have point regarding increased demand.

    I don’t think any commodity would be of interest for speculation purposes if there wasn’t a demand. Where I live in France, quinoa is now grown locally to respond to this demand. So I think the problem needs to be reframed so that the economy is at the the service of the producers, rather than the speculators, which as you point out, is currently not the case.

    Cheers,
    Ian

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