By Michael Bianco
One of the many health magazines banished on the shelves of supermarket checkout lines across the country is almost guaranteed to have some reference to the recent growing “superfood” trend. Quinoa, kale, chia seeds and many more have recently been thrown into the public spotlight as people look for new and innovative ways to improve their diet and health.
Only a few years ago, very few people would have had knowledge of such items, yet with the growing popularity of these “unconventional” superfoods, demand has increased at a breakneck speed. Quinoa serves as a good indicator of the larger game at play on an international economic scale.
Quinoa, a grain crop whose edible seeds provide uncanny nutritional value, has increased in popularity in the United States and other countries for its appealing nature to people leading or getting into healthy lifestyles.
Grown primarily in its native lands in South America, export of the product has increased dramatically to almost unprecedented levels. Peru, one of the main producers of the grain, has seen production rise from 7,000 tons a year in the 1980s to 42,500 tons in 2011. There is no doubt that the sudden surge of demand has brought new wealth to areas previously struggling to make ends meet. Bolivia earned $64 million from exports of the crop in 2011; a 36 percent increase from 2010. With all these positive indicators, it seems that the future will be bright for everyone involved; the producers and the consumers.
However, despite the immediate benefits that have come out of increased demand, there are still demand increases. Production must obviously rise to keep up with it as growth continues to unspoken highs. Unfortunately a problem that the indigenous populations face in South America is the harsh reality that the prices in the domestic market have risen to unattainable levels for the poorest populations because the majority of the crop is exported. This in turn diminishes supply available to them. It is ironic to see this situation play out: by selling more of their product (which any producer would want), they are diminishing their own quality of life by negatively affecting their own domestic economies and markets.
With such a strange and unfortunate situation unfolding, the ethical issues of consuming “superfoods” gives rise to a larger problem: is it worth buying a product when its purchase further worsens the economic situation for the exporting country? While this is not nearly the first time that a foreign country has been taken advantage of for domestic benefit, this situation is unique because there is not necessarily a human rights violation or even a “victim”. What seems to be happening is that quinoa, for instance, is almost “too popular” to the extent that it is harming local populations by altering the economics of the region.
While this issue has been somewhat talked about recently, there is still no consensus about how to deal with the growing issue. It seems unfeasible to restrict exports, as that would only anger potential customers. Also, there may not be enough farmland soon to further increase production. This is evident from conflicts arising in Bolivia where two towns erupted into violent conflict over the little arable land they had to share for the grain. Perhaps this economic problem can, at the very least, serve as a lesson for what happens when a country or region is not prepared for the sudden rise in popularity of an export. This learning experience can then be applied in the future to make sure underdeveloped economic regions remain stable in the midst of a flood of newly acquired wealth.