The Unintended Consequences of “Ethical” Food

I was sitting in a restaurant in Oakland with two of my oldest friends. It was a hip place with organic, sustainable, cruelty-free everything and a huge assortment of microbrews on tap. I was looking through the menu when I saw “Quinoa.”

I asked, “What is kih-NOE-uh?”

“It’s keen-wah,” my friend responded. “It’s been getting really popular. It’s some kind of ‘miracle grain.’ It’s become a little controversial though. American demand for it is so high that the price for it is sky-rocketing, and the Peruvian peasants who used to eat it as a staple of their diet can’t afford it anymore.”

I did a little research and found an interesting article on this. It’s fascinating that well-intentioned, health-conscious, low-carbon-footprint Americans could be unwittingly doing so much damage to poor communities in the global market. Ironic really. I think about the “fair trade” movement. Wouldn’t this have the same impact? Americans can afford to pay premium prices for foods grown in other countries. But paying what seems a “fair” price on our end may not actually be good for poor people in the countries of origin. Driving prices up benefits the farmer in the short-term, but his extra money won’t do him much good if all of his staple foods are more expensive. In the end, even the wealthier farmer doesn’t benefit much from his extra income, and all the poor urban dwellers who aren’t seeing any increase in their wages end up being elbowed out of the market by affluent do-gooder bleeding heart types. Ouch.

Many articles have been written in response to this issue (e.g., this one)—which is very complicated, no doubt. But the solution seems simple. It’s the same solution for big government—decentralize. Localize. We need to be supporting local food. Vegetarian and especially vegan diets are especially dependent on imported foods. If we ate minimally-processed local foods grown or prepared by people in our local community, we would avoid being duped by our food suppliers, we would wrench power from big agriculture, we would benefit poor farmers in the long term, we would be less dependent on government subsidies, and we would eat better all around. Oh, but first we’d need to develop actual communities.