The Great Quinoa Debate, or Why We Need Social Statisticians and Philosophers

Features

  • Author: Chris Smaje
  • Date: 04 Sep 2013
  • Copyright: Image appears courtesy of iStock Photo

Perhaps quinoa is not, on the face of it, a very promising topic for an article on social statistics. It’s a nutritious grain crop from the spinach family, first domesticated in the Andean Altiplano about 5,000 years ago, and is still mostly grown only in that region – Peru and Bolivia account for over 90% of global production. It does, in 2013, happen to be the International Year of Quinoa as well as being of course the International Year of Statistics, so at least that’s something in common. Another coincidence, regrettably, is the almost complete indifference of the general public to these important anniversaries, and their invisibility within the media. Actually, that last point isn’t entirely true, and on that front quinoa has probably enjoyed a better run of it than statistics in their commemorative year, if only because of the kind of internet firestorm that seems to keep bloggers and web editors happy. So perhaps some statistics can come to the aid of its fellow annual celebrant to sort through the claims and counter-claims?

thumbnail image: The Great Quinoa Debate, or Why We Need Social Statisticians and Philosophers

It all started when the food writer Joanna Blythman published an article in The Guardian which claimed that the discovery of quinoa as the latest ‘superfood’ by trendy rich-country foodies had prompted a spike in demand for the crop and a consequent rise in prices that had pushed it beyond the means of the quinoa-growing Andean peasants who were its traditional consumers. A theme of Blythman’s article – telegraphed by her title, ‘Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?’ – was to take vegans, in particular, to task for driving imports of exotic vegetable matter from foreign climes such as quinoa to the detriment of the exporting countries, instead of sticking to the homegrown meat and dairy-rich diet.

Cue a series of outraged rebuttals from vegans, free trade foundations, development economists and Andean farm representatives, the resulting brouhaha being ably summarised in a blog post by Jeremy Cherfas. Cherfas drew attention to the fact that another article from The Guardian, making much the same points as Blythman, had previously appeared under the headline ‘Quinoa brings riches to the Andes’, which just goes to prove the old statistical adage that data is nothing without interpretation. Another statistically-minded commentator pointed out that plots of both quinoa exports and web searches on the world ‘quinoa’ against time produced remarkably similar graphs – which may exemplify another old adage that correlation does not prove causality, or else could perhaps be explained causally by way of a theory about the linked geopolitics of food imports and internet use. Anyway, that’s enough statistical adages – let us instead try to get to the root of the debate.

It does, in 2013, happen to be the International Year of Quinoa as well as being of course the International Year of Statistics...So perhaps some statistics can come to the aid of its fellow annual celebrant to sort through the claims and counter-claims?

One blogger who undoubtedly helped contribute to the rush of quinoa hits was Marc Bellemare in a post with the marvellously splenetic title ‘Quinoa nonsense, or why the world still needs agricultural economists’. Bellemare pointed out that whether Andean peasant growers stood to gain or lose from the quinoa rush depended on whether they were net buyers or sellers of the grain, whether they produced under contract or in spot markets with variable prices, and whether they could store the produce and thus sell it at an advantageous point in the market. Bellemare didn’t profess to know the answers to his questions, but one of his respondents – Sergio Nunez de Arco – did, and provided an actual figure (mercy be!) to illuminate the debate, stating that average income per family farm in the quinoa growing areas of the Altiplano increased from $35 to $220 per month over the last five years.

So, does that mean the debate is now settled in the vegan foodies’ favour? The statistical stickler might point out that there is a potential ecological fallacy in de Arco’s figure: in other words, the fact that average income per farm in the quinoa growing areas has increased doesn’t necessarily mean that the increase results from increased quinoa prices at the farm level. But one of the problems with invoking the ecological fallacy in the context of typically imperfect social science data where experimental controls are an unattainable dream is that while individual-level association can’t necessarily be inferred from area-level association, nor can it be ruled out – so let us make the not unreasonable assumption based on de Arco’s local knowledge that the quinoa boom is indeed the cause of the income spike. In that case, it may seem that Blythman’s case has crumbled – the vegan foodies are getting their superfood and the Altiplano peasants are getting cold, hard cash so everyone, surely, is a winner?

Well, I’m not so sure. It does seem to me that Blythman isn’t on firm ground when she specifically blames vegans for driving up prices abroad, since the same (or worse) can be said for non-vegans, and there are also issues about agricultural carrying capacity in meat and dairy-intensive diets. Perhaps her article exemplifies the common human instinct to want to puncture the moral certitude of the self-righteous – not always necessarily a bad instinct, but not always necessarily a good one either. What’s ultimately more important are some of the wider implications of the growing marketisation of quinoa that have been rehearsed in the debate.

On this front, the kind of things that are being said for Joanna Blythman’s side of the argument are that the quinoa price spike may indeed have put it beyond the means of the people who grow it, and the extra cash in their pockets is being used to buy nutritionally inferior staples and junk food; that the increasing price incentive to grow quinoa is leading to unsustainable agricultural practices and soil erosion in the ecologically sensitive Altiplano, including the displacement of other traditional forms of farming such as pastoralism; and that, likewise, the price incentive is encouraging well resourced commercial farmers in the wealthy countries fuelling quinoa demand to switch into quinoa production, with the likely consequences that the Altiplano’s quinoa boom will be short-lived and that the commercial farmers will choose high-yielding hybrid seed, putting the genetic diversity of the crop at risk.

Of course there are counter-arguments, both normative and empirical or, if you will, ‘statistical’. The empirical ones focus around questions such as the extent to which poor Altiplano farmers do in fact depend on quinoa nutritionally, the extent to which it truly is possible for quinoa cultivation in the region to displace sustainable agricultural practices, and the extent to which it’s possible for emerging crops such as quinoa to threaten the considerable inertia of the global food system in its extraordinary reliance on wheat, maize, rice and soya. These are all interesting questions which have been raised in the debate, albeit with regrettably little empirical evidence being brought forward so that people can judge the issues for themselves – a common problem in the increasingly short-termist world of agricultural research and data analysis.

So perhaps the great quinoa debate suggests that we need social statisticians, because it’s worth gathering and analysing data about social practices such as farming in order to be able to answer the kind of questions that Bellemare poses and therefore to interrogate the often lazy claims of journalists, politicians and thinktanks in support of preconceived notions about social welfare.

But perhaps what’s ultimately more important than these empirical specifics are the more general normative issues. The main normative argument that can be raised against the kind of position adopted by Blythman is the familiar one of who-are-we-westerners-to-bemoan-peasant-farmers-getting-in-on-a-cash-cow-and-trashing-their-environment-in-the-process-just-like-we’ve-done, which doesn’t seem a wholly unreasonable position. But it may be a pretty short-sighted one if we put together current environmentalist presentiments with what we already know about the cycles of economic boom and bust. Nobody can begrudge poor farmers cashing in, but if the result is just a microcosm for the wider malaise of contemporary agricultural economics – short-term economic gain at the expense of long-term economic and environmental pain, then perhaps some of we westerners are in fact well placed to pass judgment on the folly when we see others innocently embarking on the same misguided path we’ve trodden.

For this reason, I offer as my title for this piece a variation on Bellemare’s theme in order to suggest that we must try to keep data analysis and political prescription as separate as possible. For if it’s true as I suggested earlier that data mean nothing without interpretation, it’s also often true that various interpretations can fit the same data – something to which agricultural economics does not always pay sufficient attention when it borrows from the welfare economics of its parent discipline. Even if it can be shown in answering Bellemare’s questions that growing quinoa for western foodies increases the ‘welfare’ of poor Altiplano farmers in the rather technical and ahistorical sense he invokes from welfare economics, there are reasons to resist confounding the positive (can Altiplano farmers achieve financial gain from the current market for quinoa?) with the normative (financial gain equals, by definition, social benefit). So perhaps the great quinoa debate suggests that we need social statisticians, because it’s worth gathering and analysing data about social practices such as farming in order to be able to answer the kind of questions that Bellemare poses and therefore to interrogate the often lazy claims of journalists, politicians and thinktanks in support of preconceived notions about social welfare. And it suggests we need philosophers (or at least thinkers) to pose deeper questions about social welfare than is provided by simplistic assumptions about market integration and economic benefit. We need a more nuanced understanding than current economic models typically provide about the benefits or otherwise of global market integration in the food system – and here I suspect that Joanna Blythman’s general line of argument, if not her specific analysis of quinoa economics, may prove fairly close to the mark.

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