Monday, November 26, 2012

The Limits of Vegan Consumption

Juan Karita / AP
When you transform a food into a commodity, there's inevitable breakdown in social relations and high environmental cost - Tanya Kerssen

A gluten-,soy-, GMO-free, complete plant protein. Half of the world's quinoa export comes from Bolivia, where 90% of the crop is grown organically, mostly on small family farms, and where growers' unions protect their livelihoods from the appropriation by multinational corporations. Beyond being an allergen-free, fairly traded, nutritional powerhouse, the increase in demand on the global market is funneling wealth into one of the poorest regions in South America. Families are being able to purchase new technologies that can reduce the stress and increase the efficiency of their farms as well as afford to send their children to university. Superfood indeed!

As successful as quinoa has become as a replacement for grains and a go-to answer to "where do you get your protein?," its success is beginning to come at a cost to indigenous ecological and cultural sustainability. In a Time article published earlier this year, Jean Friedman-Rudovsky reported a breakdown in community, "the traditional relationship between llama herding and soil fertilization," and children's SOLE food consumption.

With its entrance into the global market, quinoa has become a force of globalization. Globalization isn't merely a process that attracts wealth, it's also a process that creates an entry for western culture and technology--the good, the bad, and the ugly. The expanse and intensification of quinoa on the Andean high plains disrupts the communal grazing land of llama's, a cameloid who nourishes the harsh earth with their nitrogen-rich guano. Farmers are now competing to establish plot ownership over what has for millenia been 90% communal grazing land, with the result of seasonal kidnappings and violence as well as an increase in soil erosion and use of finite water sources. The rising affluence from the crop also leads to access to media and food once unavailable, corresponding to a change in food preferences away from the indigenous crop toward processed, malnutritious commodities. Further, the tripling of quinoa's market value may make this once local, nutritious, "mother grain" less accessible to locals not directly reaping the economic benefits.*

(Quinoa is of the most benign "cruelty-free" foods when compared to palm oil and chocolate)

"Beyond Veganism"
These less than ideal consequences that trail the otherwise mutual benefits of the global consumption of quinoa is no reason to cut the crop out of vegan diets, but it does offer an opportunity to reflect upon the limits of a consumption-centered vegan ethic (a discourse primarily about what we eat and don't eat rather than the restoration of the social responsibility we feel with all sentient beings).

While the institutional killing of chickens in the US and llamas in Bolivia go against vegan values, so perhaps too does the undercutting of food sovereignty and and biocultural diversity. There is no need to conclude that US vegans ought to condemn international food ways, nor should they finger-wag at the desire of people in the global South to share in modern technologies and western culture. What is important is to be critically engaged with the real impact our lives have on (human and animal) others, to understand that foods do not fit naturally and firmly into categories such as "good" and "bad."

The just production, distribution and consumption of certain foods vary by the methods, the place, and the time for each food. For instance, rice may a have smaller water-footprint when grown in southeast Asia and a than in California; the carbon-footprint may be higher for growing tomatoes in a local greenhouse than on a farm in Florida, but Florida tomatoes may be picked by wage slaves; people living in tundra and desert often depend upon the exploitation and killing of animal others, but by advocating an animal-free diet would force them into dependency on expensive and/or malnutritious outside food and undermine their food sovereignty. In the case of quinoa, a internationally-desired food that at first provided great benefits to Andean farmers may turn into a food that comes at the expense of the local ecology and culture.

Food is complex. General rules (like eat vegan, seasonal/local, fair, permacultural, and organic food) are important for keeping us sane, productive people. But not everyone has the privilege of living in a California vegan cooperative where SOLE food is accessible and abundant year-round. If you live in a food desert or an isolated part of the world unconductive to sustainable agriculture, one is institutionally constrained into prioritizing certain food values over others (such as cost-effectively meeting one's caloric needs with non-toxic food). Rather than simply asking those with less privilege to work towards a vegan practice, vegans can work in solidarity with other people to transforming present food systems away from not only a species hierarchy, but also class, gender, race, and national hierarchy as well. As I wrote before, "[v]eganism will have limited success so long as it remains a luxury reserved for those with privilege, independent of human liberation movements."

Food Empowerment