Partial Readings: Protein Guilt, This Week in the War Against Women, Twitter Sabotage

Quinoa farmers in Bolivia. Photo courtesy of FAOALC / Flickr.

Protein Guilt

In recent years, the Andean “miracle grain” quinoa has ascended to superfood stardom at a rate rivaled only by kale. Its rich protein and amino acid contents helped turn it from a Peruvian peasant staple—or an exotic alternative to couscous, for a handful of international consumers—into a commodity prized by foodies far and wide. Its popularity has reached a point where dozens of tons of the grain are now flown out of Peru and Bolivia and into the pantries of healthy, wealthy consumers every year. Fair-trade enthusiasts in particular have been wooed by the promise of Andean cooperative farms supplying their vegetarian protein fix.

There is little doubt that the trade has brought tangible gains to the few countries exporting quinoa. In 2012, quinoa exports brought roughly $35 and $85 million in revenue to Peru and Bolivia, respectively, with prices tripling since 2006, earning the enthusiastic support of the countries’ politicians. Bolivian president and former quinoa farmer Evo Morales has even heralded the grain as an icon of national rejuvenation, and he managed to obtain a position as the “Special Ambassador to the FAO [Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN] for the International Year of Quinoa” in 2012. “For years [quinoa] was looked down on just like the indigenous movement,” he recalled. “To remember that past is to remember discrimination against quinoa and now after so many years it is reclaiming its rightful recognition as the most important food for life.”

Like many conscious consumer trends, however, the quinoa boom has recently incurred some much-deserved criticism, most notably in a Guardian editorial by Joanna Blythman titled “Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?” Herself a guilty quinoa eater—though apparently not a vegan—Blythman notes that

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. In Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken. Outside the cities, and fuelled by overseas demand, the pressure is on to turn land that once produced a portfolio of diverse crops into quinoa monoculture.

In fact, the quinoa trade is yet another troubling example of a damaging north-south exchange, with well-intentioned health and ethics-led consumers here unwittingly driving poverty there. It’s beginning to look like a cautionary tale of how a focus on exporting premium foods can damage the producer country’s food security.

Tanya Kerssen, of the Oakland-based advocacy group Food First, offered a similar perspective in a Time article published last April: “When you transform a food into a commodity, there’s inevitable breakdown in social relations and high environmental cost.”

A keen observer at Daily Kos followed up on the recent controversy with a reminder about the policies driving current U.S. trade with South America, including the 2002 Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act and the 2007 Peruvian Free Trade Agreement, modeled on NAFTA and wholeheartedly endorsed at the time by a recently elected Barack Obama: “Peru’s ability to ship agricultural goods here duty-free was…designed to encourage farmers to grow something other than coca. And it worked. Perhaps too well.”

Yet passionate vegetarians and other quinoa loyalists have come to their favorite grain’s defense. Responding to Blythman’s provocation, PETA’s associate director Mimi Bekhechi argues, also in the Guardian, that quinoa production will never rival that of meat in its effects on global hunger and environmental devastation. She forcefully challenges Blythman’s call for a return to a more traditional, omnivorous, local diet.

According to a United Nations report, the meat industry is “one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global”, and the UN has concluded that a global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change. A study published last October by the European Commission found that switching to a vegetarian diet results in twice the carbon emissions savings of switching to an electric car.

“The world’s cattle alone,” Bekhechi adds, “consume enough food to sustain nine billion people, which is what the world’s human population is projected to be by 2050.”

In a more conciliatory spirit, Mother Jones’s Tom Philpott points out that various groups are trying to expand cultivation of the hardy quinoa crop to the United States and Europe, an endeavor that will no doubt bring much relief to guilty quinoa consumers on this side of the Equator (including yours truly) if successful.

This Week in the War Against Women

A slew of grisly attacks on women in the United States and abroad have brought sexual violence into the media spotlight in recent months, yet the incidents continue to be portrayed as isolated crimes. In her most recent essay at TomDispatch, Rebecca Solnit issues a forceful corrective. “A Rape a Minute, A Thousand Corpses a Year” is a painfully thorough roundup of stories and statistics about violence against women, which aims to make sense of a gruesome situation evoked by the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof: “Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined.”

Solnit puts these grim statistics into context: from San Francisco’s Tenderloin district to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, from Washington D.C. to Dhaka, Bangladesh—where yet another a bus gang rape was reported last week—societies around the world give sexists, rapists, and violent partners a pass, each finding their own ways to shift the blame for brutality while assigning women all the responsibility for “protecting themselves.” (In a particularly dark example, Mumbai’s militant right-wing Shiv Sena party has begun distributing some 100,000 pocket knives to women in response to the Delhi bus rape.)

Sexual violence cuts across national, ethnic, religious, and class lines, as Solnit makes very clear. It nevertheless remains shocking how casually the halls of power in the United States accommodate rampant sexism. A series of remarks from New York mayor and business mogul Michael Bloomberg, recently compiled by Gawker, are only one sign of the virulent sexism in corporate culture (and in governments where that culture is dominant). Though many sexual predators are “marginal figures,” writes Solnit, “rich, famous, and privileged guys do it, too.” And unlike their poorer counterparts, many of them can work the justice system in their favor.

Detailing the charges of horrific abuse that Mason Mayer—brother of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer—committed against his ex-girlfriend, Solnit asks how his sister, a woman who now “has it all,” juggling a newborn and a top executive position in a notoriously sexist industry, react to the news of her brother’s crimes? Did his escaping with no more than probation have anything to do with her position? Mason Mayer’s threats “to use his family’s ‘power and influence’ to ruin [his ex-girlfriend’s] name” suggest that they might have.

Those who appreciate Solnit’s recent essay might also enjoy her somewhat more lighthearted 2008 essay, “Men Explain Things to Me,” credited with bringing the notion of “mansplaining” into the mainstream. “Facts didn’t get in their way,” she says of the mansplainers. One can still hope that women armed with facts about their abuse are in a better position to stop sexual violence.

Elsewhere online:

Michael Bloomberg is enthusiastic about 3D printers, but their capabilities might come into conflict with his crackdown on illegal guns.

Workers at British entertainment retail chain HMV stage a micro retail revolt on the company’s Twitter account when their employer slashes hundreds of jobs.

Utopia by design? The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books square off on the socially-minded architectural ambitions of the Norwegian firm Snøhetta.

The New York Times savors the poetry of cheese.