How many Bolivians are dying because foodies love quinoa?

Virginia Heffernan is the national correspondent for Yahoo! News, covering culture and politics from a digital perspective. She wrote extensively on Internet culture during her eight years as a staff writer for The New York Times, and she has also worked at Harper’s, the New Yorker and Slate. Her book, “Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet,” is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster.

By Virginia Heffernan

A long time ago, “Bolivian marching powder” meant cocaine.

Now it could mean quinoa. Quinoa is a massive crop that for millennia has honed its extraterrestrial nutritional powers in the dizzying altitudes of the Andes. In recent years, this curious substance—like coke before it—has also become a major export for Peru and Bolivia.

But, as the Guardian recently reported, the foreign market for the good seed has driven the street price of quinoa up so high that most Bolivians and Peruvians can no longer afford their homegrown staple. For the people who used to live on it, protein-dense quinoa is now more expensive than chicken. That’s rich.

Denied their indigenous marching grain (technically a “pseudocereal”), Bolivian and Peruvian peasants are turning to junk food—the same sugary bunk that sickens and malnourishes millions of us in the U.S. And thus we net a nifty parable of globalism, progress and nutrition, with one clear upshot: Foodism, like every other ideology, is dangerous—and carries unintended consequences.

I would tell you what quinoa is, in hair-splitting pseudo-agricultural detail, but then I’d sound like just one of them. The foodies. Those people who are always saying—oh, I can’t even mock them. Suffice it to say I’d rather hear an Oxycontin addict talk about how he puts the edge back on with Adderall than I would a foodie talk about how he balances the acids in mustard greens with cake flour. At least the Oxy folks don’t turn their boring and expensive pleasure into sanctimony. In my experience, they’re even somewhat private and sheepish about it.

But let’s just say quinoa is a thing that foodies adore, that exists by the gunnysackful in the stockrooms of liberal-elite restaurants and liberal-elite kitchens in Boston, San Francisco, Manhattan, Portland, Chicago, Austin and Seattle.

Quinoa is stylish and, furthermore, believed by the Timothy Learys of the foodists to goose or balance “amino-acid levels,” without which many noble vegans and carniphobes would perish (or have to resort to yucky supplements). To be a good sport, since I live in foodie Brooklyn myself, I have tried quinoa with beets and cheese and fish, in muffins, beside eggs—wherever regular American carbs like potatoes used to be served.

The people of the Andes like to eat quinoa this way too, it turns out. Quinoa is known to Andean folks as the “lost crop of the Incas,” as well as a “miracle grain” for its near-holy amino-acid balance. But then, suddenly, rich people in other countries, including the United States, some of whom have shifted their taste from white powder to this other intoxicant measured in grams, wanted to sample the latest Bolivian miracle. So we enriched many farmers by buying up the quinoa—and further impoverished the Andeans, by dooming them to malnutrition.

What a story! Quinoa prices, according to the Bolivian department of agriculture, have almost tripled in five years, during which time Bolivia’s own quinoa consumption has dropped by a third. In areas where quinoa is grown, chronic malnutrition in children marches upward.

Of course, there’s a style issue in Bolivia, too. Kids in Park Slope, Brooklyn or Marin County, Calif., raised in the cult of Alice Waters and Whole Foods, may like quinoa, but regular kids in countries that aren’t hyper-trophically developed don’t typically ask for it. Sensibly, they ask for what’s sugary and on circus-colored billboards. Explains Víctor Hugo Vásquez, vice minister of rural development and agriculture in Bolivia, “If you give them boiled water, sugar and quinoa flour mixed into a drink, they prefer Coca-Cola.”

At the same time, ballooning quinoa prices also raise questions that could, if answered, change the story from ironic and sad to more complex still.

As Marc F. Bellemare, an assistant professor at Duke University, points out in his blog, the tragic take on the quinoa boom assumes that Bolivian households are mostly quinoa consumers penalized by a bull market and not quinoa farmers and sellers who stand to gain from it. In fact, agricultural economists haven’t sorted this out yet. Journalists who make the opposite, and equally unfounded, assumption—that Bolivians are mostly quinoa farmers (and not children starving for want of quinoa)—sound like delirious free-market boosters. In The Globe and Mail, Doug Saunders has raved that for Bolivians the quinoa craze is “the greatest thing that has happened to them. … Quinoa had all but died out as a staple in Bolivia, replaced by beans and potatoes, until farmers began planting it in the 1980s with exports to North America in mind.”

The important thing, then, is to follow the food without getting ideological, not only about wholesome classy quinoa, but also about delicious tawdry Coca-Cola, that bugbear of foodies who are perpetually disgusted to discover that the feeble-minded among us still like a little sugar with our water. Eat what you want, but stop preaching about it, and it surely can’t hurt to leave some Andean quinoa for the people of the Andes.

To help children in Bolivia, where more than half the kids 6 months to 5 years old suffer from malnutrition, and 54 in a thousand die in childhood, consider supporting MAP’s Community School for Life.

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