By: Yeeun Lee

“Superfoods.” The term is constantly used and seen throughout the media, but what does it really mean? Initially coined for marketing purposes, the term is still used today as a selling strategy. While no scientific definition exists, many would agree that the term refers to foods that offer numerous health benefits.

What many aren’t aware of is that this billion dollar industry has created a wide variety of socio-economic and environmental issues. With the rise in technology and the global market, different superfoods have gained popularity worldwide, such as the “exotic” quinoa and açai. However, this hype goes beyond increased demand. It has turned the staple foods of various indigenous and often marginalized communities into commodities, and it has transformed foods that were once negatively seen as “low-class” and “unappealing” into “healthy” and “desirable”, raising questions of how symbolic, economic, and cultural values are assigned.

Native to the Andean regions of Bolivia and Peru, quinoa is known for being low in carbohydrates, high in protein and fiber, and gluten-free. There are many reasons as to why demand increased in the Global North, especially the United States and Europe, which include concerns of sufficient protein intake and the rise in gluten-free diets.

Exports in Bolivia alone increased from $3.1 million in 2003 to $75 million in 2012.[1] Increasing demand led to skyrocketing prices that initially brought hope and benefits to poor Andean farmers. Between 2008 and 2010, prices increased three-fold, and in 2013 doubled.[1] However, the benefits were short-lived as the quinoa market grew and global competitors began to produce quinoa in Italy, India, China, the United States, and Canada. These competitors not only had capital but technological and geographical advantages over small-scale Andean farmers.

The over-production of quinoa, even with its immense demand, caused prices to drop, leaving many small-scale farmers devastated. What’s more, the staple food in highland areas was replaced by less nutritious rice and wheat noodles, which became more affordable than quinoa.[2] This switch contributes to malnutrition, especially in areas where potential health replacements for quinoa, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, are also expensive. In fact, the highest rates of stunting—an indicator of malnutrition—in Peru and Bolivia are in the highland areas.[3]

As global citizens we have the responsibility to be mindful of where these items come from as well as how our consumerism affects communities and individual lives.

In addition to these socio-economic effects, the worldwide quinoa boom also impacted the environment. To meet global demand, farmers switched their traditional methods of crop rotation to “mechanized methods of cultivation” which involve the use of chemicals. Overproduction of quinoa also caused soils in the highland areas to become more fragile. Also, the reduction in llama and alpaca production in response to the increasing quinoa production led to a decrease in natural manure fertilization.

A similar example of exploitation of marginalized communities in interest of the “superfood” economy is the Amazonian fruit, açai. In rural areas of the Amazon rainforest, the fruit makes up 15-30% of the daily meals of people. With its popularization and increased demand, production increased from 92,000 tons in 1997 to 480,000 in 2010.[4] Additionally, the global market for the fruit increased 20% from 2007 to 2010, finding its way to healthy cafes and supermarkets in Bali, London, Sydney, and several other new markets.

And so, of course, prices rose. U.S demand alone is said to have caused a 60-fold increase in price. So what are the consequences this brought to the people that live in the areas of production? In short, it had an immense impact on their diets. What was once a staple became perhaps too valuable to consume.

Historically, açaí was mainly grown by small-scale farmers, but the hype caught the attention of several international businesses who began to increase their involvement in the Amazon. As the number of corporate farms grew, the small-scale producers found themselves excluded and unable to compete against these large businesses. Thus, while many might think that these international businesses attempted to integrate small-scale producers, they did not. Additionally, the complexities that come with international business—middlemen, brokers, agents—have discouraged the majority of traditional farmers from attempting to merge with these larger groups. Hence, corporations are gradually replacing small-scale farmers and consequently destroying the local economy. What’s more, there is a huge gap between what producers make, $15 million, and what those involved with processing and commercializing make, $55 million.[4]

Quinoa and açai are both staples in historically marginalized indigenous communities. Through global commodification, both quinoa and açai which were once regarded as “chicken scratch” and “poor man’s juice” have become luxuries. Both foods have gained symbolic and economic value through global marketing and consumption, which has created immense socio-economic and environmental consequences for these communities.

The benefits of these growing industries are also highly disproportionate. It is crucial to note that these same foods were the ones that were used to discriminate against these communities and describe them as “backwards, uneducated, and lower-class.”[4] Why is it that when these foods were solely consumed by the natives they were regarded negatively but when they were commercialized into the global market they gained value? Must all things be commodified to gain status in our contemporary world? As global citizens we have the responsibility to be mindful of where these items come from as well as how our consumerism affects communities and individual lives around the world.

References:

[1] Kerssen, Tanya M. “Food Sovereignty and the Quinoa Boom: Challenges to Sustainable Re-Peasantisation in the Southern Altiplano of Bolivia.” Third World Quarterly 36.3 (2015): 489-507.

[2] McDonell, Emma. “Nutrition Politics in the Quinoa Boom: Connecting Consumer and Producer Nutrition in the Commercialization of Traditional Foods.” International Journal of Food and Nutritional Science (2016).

[3] Larrea, C., and W. Freire. “Social Inequality and Child Malnutrition in Four Andean Countries.” Rev Panam Salud Publica 11.5-6 (2002): 356-64.

[4] Brondízio, Eduardo. The Amazonian Caboclo and the açaí palm : forest farmers in the global market. Bronx, N.Y. : The New York Botanical Garden Press, 2008.

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