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In praise of quinoa

Wednesday, March 15, 2017 > 10:02:11
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www.economist.com



The spread of exotic grains is evidence that globalisation works





People are funny about food. Throughout history they have mocked others for eating strange things. In 1755 Samuel Johnson’s dictionary defined oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”. Nineteenth-century Japanese nationalists dismissed Western culture as bata kusai, or “stinking of butter”. Unkind people today deride Brits as “limeys”, Mexicans as “beaners” and French people as “frogs”. And food-related insults often have a political tinge. George Orwell complained that socialism was unpopular because it attracted “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer [and] sex-maniac…in England”. In many countries today, politicians who wish to imply that their rivals have lost touch with ordinary voters sneer that they are latte-drinkers, muesli-munchers or partial to quinoa.

This South American grain gets a particularly bad rap. To its fans, it is a superfood. To its detractors, it is like the erotic sci-fi murals found in Saddam Hussein’s palaces—pretentious and tasteless. An advertisement for Big Macs once riffed on this prejudice. “Foodies and gastronauts kindly avert your eyes. You can’t get juiciness like this from soy or quinoa,” it said, adding that “while [a Big Mac] is massive, its ego is not.” Even those who love quinoa sometimes fret that scarfing it may not be ethical. What if rising hipster demand pushes the price up, forcing Andeans to eat less of their beloved grain? Or what if the price falls, making Andean farmers poorer? A headline from Mother Jones, a left-wing magazine, perfectly captured the confusion of well-meaning Western foodies: “Quinoa: good, evil or just really complicated?”

This newspaper takes no view as to whether quinoa tastes nice. But its spread is a symptom of a happy trend. More and more people are chomping unfamiliar grains (see article). Rich Westerners are eating less wheat and more of the cereals that people in poor countries traditionally grow, such as millet, sorghum, teff and yes, quinoa. Middle-class Asians are eating more wheat, in the form of noodles or bread, instead of rice. West Africans are eating 25% more rice per head than in 2006; millet consumption has fallen by the same share.

All this is to be celebrated, for it is a symptom of rising prosperity and expanding choice. The spread of better farming techniques has raised yields, helping humanity feed itself despite a rising population. Rapid urbanisation means that fewer people grow their own grain, and more have the cash to try new varieties. Globalisation has allowed food and farming techniques to cross borders, meaning that people on every continent can experience new flavours and textures. Migration and tourism have broadened people’s culinary horizons: Chinese visitors to France return home craving baguettes; Americans who live near Ethiopian immigrants learn to love injera (a soft teff flatbread that doubles as an edible plate).

Food for thought

The globalisation and modernisation of agriculture have contributed to a stunning reduction in hunger. Between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of children under five who were malnourished fell from 25% to 14%. People who are still underfed are less severely so: their average shortfall in calories fell from 170 a day to 88 by 2016. And between 1990 and 2012 the proportion of their income that poor people worldwide had to spend on food fell from 79% to 54%. As for those quinoa farmers, don’t worry. A study by Marc Bellemare of the University of Minnesota found that Peruvian households became better-off because of the quinoa boom, even if they didn’t grow the stuff, because newly prosperous quinoa farmers bought more goods and services from their neighbours.

Granted, rising prosperity has allowed an increasing number of people to become unhealthily fat. But the solution to that is not to make them poorer, which is what the backlash against globalisation will do if it succeeds. Rather than sniping snootily about Donald Trump’s taste for well-done steaks slathered with ketchup, liberals should worry about the administration’s plans to erect trade barriers and possibly start a trade war. That would make the world poorer and hungrier.


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