Fretting is the hot new side dish, but it's not healthy. I'm sure there are many in wealthy North America who eat their oatmeal every morning blissfully unaware of the controversies around whether their porridge is fair-trade, organic, local, steel cut or minute, but there are a growing number who, like our friends from Portlandia, fret a great deal about such things.
The newest food for fret is quinoa. The Guardian warns, "There is an unpalatable truth to face for those of us with a bag of quinoa in the larder." The article continues, "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."
This has prompted the pastor of a major church in Toronto, for example, to see the rise in quinoa prices as indicative of deeper problems in our economic system. He says:
It's like the colonialist impulse all over . . . we in the well-resourced west can tap the resources of a far-flung geographic community with little, if any, consideration or forethought for the impact on that community, without naming human values and community needs that trump economic imperatives.
Wendell Berry, a true prophetic voice, writes that "the global economy does not exist to help communities and localities of the globe. It exists to siphon the wealth of those communities and places into a few bank accounts." All this leaves me convinced again something has to shift.
The pastor concludes: "Ah quinoa, I was just beginning to love you—but unless we can find a better way, I'm called to love my Andean neighbours more."
My response? Don't stop putting quinoa in your brownies.
It is true that rising food prices can and do have a deleterious effect on the poorest. Any time the price of anything rises it causes some shift in allocation, and when the bulk of your income is spent on food, that shift can cause severe pain. We are right—no, commanded—to be help our neighbours who are hungry and can't afford to eat. But the command to love does not necessitate ending one's love affair with quinoa.
Berry says that "the global economy does not exist to help communities and localities of the globe." But this is not true. The global economy is a complex system of laws, institutions, and yes, individuals, participating in (hopefully!) frugal exchange of goods and services. Likewise its benefits and drawbacks—and there are almost always both—are equally complex. Global exchange of goods and services for money, as has been documented by Paul Collier and a host of others, has contributed to a massive decrease in global poverty. It is one of the leading reasons behind the growth of the middle class in China, India, and other formerly very poor countries. When we discuss the rise of quinoa prices in the Andes and its deleterious effects, we should not forget that we are transferring wealth from rich areas to poorer areas. More accurately, the exchange takes place between companies made up of people, many of whom ostensibly benefit. The problem is that not everyone gets equal access to those benefits. Other problems can arise too: environmental degradation, to name just one. The reasons for this could be sinister, but it's not clear that the exchange of quinoa for cash is the ultimate culprit. Maybe the very poor are disabled and are unable to work, and therefore share in the benefit that comes as a result of overall increased profits from quinoa. Perhaps the employers are greedy and do not pay their workers well enough. Perhaps the government is siphoning off profits.
In each of these cases, the problem will not be solved by ceasing quinoa consumption. The problem is better solved by assistance for the disabled, by a trade union, or by the election of a more honest government.
In other words, in thinking about the economy and its blessings and curses, it's helpful to think of the social infrastructure within which the economy works, and to think of ways to strengthen the pillars that will ensure that everyone gets to enjoy the wealth of nations.