Everything about food is political. Everything from what we eat, to when we eat it , how we prepare it, where we buy/grow/or even butcher it is a part or a larger schema of culture and the global economy of food. It seems simple enough, but what implications does this have when one group of consumers is introduced to a food as a fad that has been the staple of other populations for centuries?
This new form of food migration is much more subtle, though no less asymmetric in terms of the power dynamics that underpin it. No, this is not the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, nor is it the forced religious conversion of native populations from non-Western lands across the world. What it is is a form of neocolonialism , which is predicated on the appropriation of diet, with little to no regard to the externalities that might be wrought on the communities that have been disadvantaged.
In the development field, we are taught that as countries experience growth in GDP and become wealthier, their diets shift to include more meat. This trend is understood through the lens that Western powers are traditional meat eaters and that countries in the Global South have not incorporated meat in their diet to the same extent due to conditions of poverty. When twenty-somethings sitting in cozy classrooms at liberal arts colleges are taught this, we then come to understand the fact that increased meat consumption is in fact not good for the environment. Thus, the millennial spike in vegetarianism and veganism was born. As a caveat, I will add that other factors such as health consciousness and ethical treatment of animals have also fed into this trend as well – not to mention the World Health Organization’s recent declaration that processed meat has a causal link to cancer.
My concern in writing this piece is the dichotomy of ethical concerns – that while people can rid their conscience of the worry about harming the environment and the unethical slaughter of animals for food, they seldom worry about what their new meatless diets mean for other human beings.
What if I were to tell you that the spike in consumption of the high-protein quinoa grain among new-wave vegans has resulted in a continuous price spike since 2006 – causing it’s traditional consumers to be priced out? These traditional consumers are more often than not individuals from the lower socioeconomic strata in Andean communities in Peru and Bolivia.
Cheap junk food has replaced what was once a healthy component of many diets in Latin America. In some regions, quinoa is more expensive than chicken. In an attempt to satiate growing international demand for this grain, countries along the Andean mountain range have been cornered into shifting from a diverse agricultural economy to one that thrives on mono-culture and cash crops – not much different from how their agriculture was organized during the reign of Spanish conquistadors. It is a return to colonialism.
Other “super foods” like kale have risen to fame in a similar respect. Marketed as a cholesterol-lowering, digestive-tract regulating, flavinoid-rich powerhouse, kale has become the perfect food for the modern-day health conscious individual (who is disproportionately more likely to be living in the Western world).
I have long said that food chains like Whole Foods are canaries in the coal mine for gentrification, usually from the standpoint of the neighborhoods where they are directly located. However,the gentrification spans further than a city block and even beyond country borders. When these stores market a product as a “superfood”, this correlates to a price increase. For instance, since taking off in the U.S. market in 2011 under the “superfood” marketing scheme, the price of kale has increased 25% – from 88 cents a bunch to $1.10 a bunch. The grim irony of it all is that the native populations where kale is grown and even the new neighborhoods where it is sold are often outpriced from enjoying the health benefits of this.
The ethics and mantra of improving one’s quality of life by eating healthier is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, I admire those who can stick to strict diets and can list off the organic contents and nutritional value of their meals. I am still among the masses who still eats food with ingredients that I can’t pronounce and occasionally indulges in pork (though usually at the forcing of my Southern-bred family).
This isn’t a call-to-arms for those who enjoy eating healthy foods to stop doing so, but rather a call-to-action for them to understand that just as they seek out a balanced diet, to also understand how their doing so might prevent others from enjoying the same. Food politics is much larger than both you and I. But it is possible for us, on a micro level, to reimagine this corrupt North-South exchange and disrupt the chain of importing premium foods at the expense of another country’s agricultural economy. Let’s use past facets of a colonialism as a cautionary tale of how nation-states should not interact with one another and understand that the ethics of food consumption reaches far beyond the refusal to eat animals/animal byproducts.