Opinionista Ivo Vegter 22 January 2013

In defence of vegans

One of the under-appreciated benefits of arguing from principles rooted in individual liberty and free markets is that you can defend anyone. Even vegans. Which is what this column shall set out to do, since they got hit with big Guardian sticks about something called “quinoa”. Their elitist tastes are harming poor people, so this guilt-trip goes.

For some reason, it was a popular article. It garnered more than 1,000 comments. For readership, it outranked even a piece about horsemeat in British hamburgers.

“Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?” the headline punned, in great moralising fashion.

It was written by Joanna Blythman, who, give her credit, assumes that her readers know not only what vegans are (people who eschew not only meat, but eat no animal products of any kind) but also what quinoa is (a protein-rich grain-like seed grown in the Andes as an alternative to such staples as rice, maize and cous-cous).

“Ethical consumers should be aware poor Bolivians can no longer afford their staple grain, due to western demand raising prices,” she continues in the subheadline, and the column pretty much writes itself from there. Quinoa is fashionable, quinoa is a plant, vegans eat plants, fashionable vegans eat quinoa. So blame the vegans for shafting the poor, because vegans are too weak to defend themselves, and it isn’t a proper Guardian piece if the poor don’t get shafted.

One should note that it was published in the “Comment is Free” section, where, a wit once remarked, you get what you pay for. And that includes, not surprisingly, questionable economics, questionable facts, questionable newsworthiness, and questionable prejudice.

On newsworthiness, the “quinoa hurts the poor” scare scores badly. NPR covered this angle two years ago, and reprised it in November last year. The New York Times made the exact same argument soon after, and the UK Independent called it “The food fad that’s starving Bolivia,” adding “Quinoa is hailed as a ‘superfood’ in the West. But those who grow it can no longer afford it.”

This may be why so many of Blythman’s commenters were well prepared with counter-arguments, especially about the small impact vegans truly have on global food consumption. Think what you will about the eccentricity of their food choices, and whether they are right or wrong to think that their choices have a meaningful impact on their own health or on the salvation of the planet. They surely have the right to make those choices, regardless.

Besides, they are correct to note that even of such vegan staples as soya, which gets a rap over the knuckles as a cause of deforestation, only 3% of global production is destined for human consumption in the first place, and vegans in turn account for only a small fraction of that consumption. Demand for exotic seeds and trendy cereals is hardly limited to vegans.

Blaming vegans for the supposed ill effects of the cultivation of one crop or another strikes them, rightly, as a case of irrational prejudice. And while many among them are indeed sufficiently smug about their environmental footprint to deserve mockery, they are not unique in this respect. Blaming them for poverty and starvation in this case is not justified.

That is largely true, of course, for anyone engaged in voluntary trade, whether local or global. Markets adapt. The price mechanism efficiently signals costs and scarcity to consumers on one hand, and demand to producers on the other, so that both parties can, motivated by mutual profit, adjust their behaviour to apply their limited resources to best supply each other’s needs and wants. There may be exceptions to this rule of thumb, and externalities to consider, but that the price mechanism does what it is meant to do, and a commodity’s price rises in response to growing demand, is not among them.

Which brings us neatly to the economic argument. It is true that the price of quinoa has risen sharply in the last few years. By some accounts, it has tripled since 2006. It may even be true that this makes alternatives like rice and pasta cheaper for some people in countries where it is grown. But the economic impacts are far from limited to consumers in those countries. Farm incomes have been rising as a result of higher global demand, too.

Bolivia remains far from wealthy, even by comparison with its neighbours, but it is on a rising trajectory. Poverty levels remain high but have declined markedly in the last few years. Per capita income was stagnant for many years, but has doubled since 2006 – coincidentally the same timeframe during which quinoa’s price has tripled. GDP growth for the 10-million strong nation has averaged 4.7% over the last seven years, and it outperformed the region during the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009.

It isn’t just a rising quinoa price, but rising affluence among Bolivians in general, which has stimulated a demand for novel foods, rather than what has always been stigmatised as food for the poor.

Most countries are only too happy to produce agricultural products for export at a profitable price. In fact, that is exactly what the developing world has been clamouring for in the stalled Doha round of trade talks. The Bolivian government not only hasn’t lodged any complaints against the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation for making 2013 The International Year of the Quinoa, it proposed it. Would it have done so if it thought drawing Western attention to Bolivia’s staple crop was a bad idea?

Unlike most desk journalists (your present correspondent, who has never so much as seen quinoa, included), two people who did spend 2012 travelling extensively in Bolivia are Stefan Jeremiah and Michael Wilcox. They were working on a documentary about quinoa, and spoke extensively to government officials, farmers and consumers. The pair penned a perfectly scathing response to the NPR version of the quinoa story, in which they dispute almost every element of the claim that the fashionable tastes of rich elites are causing distress among the poor in Bolivia.

They write: “The overwhelming evidence suggests that as demand for quinoa increases, Bolivians growing quinoa is providing a viable way of working themselves out of poverty. Perpetuating these myths and half truths only serves to damage a growing economy and undermine hard working farmers’ efforts to lift themselves out of poverty in an honest and sincere endeavour.”

The knock-on effects of rising farm incomes far outweigh any temporary market dislocation that the success of one sector may do to another.

Suggesting that the choices of hipsters in New York or London are impoverishing Bolivians is simplistic guilt-tripping on the one hand, and patronising to Bolivians on the other. Are they for some reason unable to adapt to changing market conditions? Can they not be trusted with rising prosperity? And if they do face challenges coping with market disruptions, as they undoubtedly do, should the blame fall on their commercial successes, or on inadequate infrastructure and restrictive domestic economic policies imposed by their own government?

Jeremiah and Wilcox are rightly outraged by the idea of campaigning against quinoa: “Convincing [foreigners] that somehow boycotting Bolivian quinoa and taking away the bulk of international demand will do the farmers more good is unacceptable. … Is it that ambition, hard work, enterprise, blood, sweat and toil is only reserved for the people of your choosing? Is it because seeing farmers in the Developing World actually succeeding doesn’t fit with your own expectation of misery and starvation? Would you prefer the humble Bolivian quinoa farmer to stay poor and remain in his place?”

Sometimes, you just have to cheer, haven’t you?

Farmers, both in Bolivia and elsewhere, will inevitably be motivated by higher prices – not to mention quinoa’s relatively ease of cultivation in marginal soil and climate conditions – to grow more of it. Higher production will inevitably provide more produce to markets that evidently desire it, and return higher incomes to Bolivians.

An old saw among economists runs something like, “the solution to high prices is high prices.” Perhaps it is too much to expect a food writer for the Guardian to grasp why economic success is a good thing, and why this statement is not a paradox. But surely they don’t have to take their disapproval of the rise of Bolivian quinoa farmers out on innocent vegans, who contributed almost nothing to that success. DM


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