Zara Rahman: Food has always been tight­ly inter­twined with cul­ture and iden­ti­ty. As a result, it’s also been a com­mon tar­get of colo­nial­ism. Colonizers under­stood that by wip­ing out people’s food tra­di­tions, it would be eas­ier to wipe out their ori­gins, their iden­ti­ty, and their his­to­ry. This kind of trend isn’t only in the past, though. In many areas of the world, dietary habits are chang­ing, food inequal­i­ty is rife, and some­how both obe­si­ty and hunger are on the rise on a glob­al scale. Fast food is on the rise, too, and it’s it’s become a sign of wealth and world­li­ness, a sort of neo­colo­nial diet, then, as the richer coun­tries are mak­ing mon­ey while the food cul­ture of the poor­er coun­tries is being lost. 

Traditional foods might not be offi­cial­ly banned any­more, but in many soci­eties diets are chang­ing because of new tech­nolo­gies and pow­er dynam­ics between for­mer colonies and for­mer colo­nial soci­eties. New tech­nolo­gies mak­ing mass-production of food ever eas­ier have result­ed in the pro­duc­tion of less nutri­tious fast food which is put on some­what of a pedestal among many lower-income soci­eties, as we’ll dis­cuss lat­er.

In this episode, we’ll look at grains like quinoa and ama­ran­th, at food spec­u­la­tion to see how finan­cial insti­tu­tions are affect­ing the price of food world­wide, and final­ly at new tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions in food and the cul­tur­al impli­ca­tions of the­se in the future.

Luiza Prado: Quinoa has been a hot issue late­ly. I imag­ine many of you have heard about the con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing this grain. As tasty and nutri­tious as it is, the sto­ry behind its com­mer­cial­iza­tion out­side of its native region has caused lots of dis­cus­sion on the eth­i­cal impli­ca­tions of its cul­ti­va­tion.

In February 2013, the United Nations launched the Year of Quinoa, and ini­tia­tive cre­at­ed in order to raise aware­ness about this ancient grain. This ini­tia­tive actu­al­ly cement­ed a trend that had been gain­ing momen­tum for some time already. In pre­vi­ous years, quinoa had become increas­ing­ly fash­ion­able with­in health-conscious cir­cles in devel­oped coun­tries.

Zara: So what’s the prob­lem with quinoa? It’s healthy, and nutri­tious.

Luiza: A lit­tle over a mon­th before the UN announce­ment, how­ev­er, the Guardian had pub­lished an arti­cle whose title asked Can veg­ans stom­ach the unpalat­able truth about quinoa?” The piece argued that due to the inces­sant­ly ris­ing demand for the grain in North Atlantic coun­tries (Europe, the US, and Canada, most­ly) the grain was becom­ing increas­ing­ly expen­sive for the peo­ple who had tra­di­tion­al­ly cul­ti­vat­ed and con­sumed it for cen­turies in Bolivia and Peru. 

The grain is, in fact, high­ly nutri­tious. Lots of pro­tein, impor­tant amino acids, just the right amount of fat. A dream come true for veg­e­tar­i­ans and veg­ans who didn’t want to wor­ry about hav­ing to pop dietary sup­ple­ments. Of course the nutri­tion­al aspects of quinoa are pre­cise­ly why this grain is, or used to be, such a sta­ple in poor com­mu­ni­ties across South America. It pro­vid­ed a cheap and reli­able way to sup­ply the nutri­tion­al needs of peo­ple who didn’t always have access to a diverse range of food­stuffs. So of course such a mag­i­cal grain had to get people’s atten­tion.

Since 2006, the Guardian arti­cle argues, quinoa prices had tripled. Some say that the quinoa boom was respon­si­ble for a seven-fold increase in the income of the aver­age Bolivian house­hold and the cre­ation of count­less jobs. 

Zara: So there’s been increas­ing demand, and more wealth for farm­ers. Has this affect­ed prices or any of the com­mu­ni­ties who were eat­ing it before the craze began?

Luiza: While the­se are very pos­i­tive sides of the quinoa craze, the sud­den inter­est in the grain has had many neg­a­tive con­se­quences as well. The ris­ing prices of the grain have made it inac­ces­si­ble to poor­er com­mu­ni­ties where it had been a sta­ple food for cen­turies. People who grow quinoa don’t eat it any­more. They sell it and eat processed food like white bread and noodles instead. Malnutrition, espe­cial­ly in chil­dren, seems to be on the rise in many areas where quinoa is cul­ti­vat­ed.

The sud­den Western inter­est in quinoa is also quite iron­ic, given that the grain was actu­al­ly out­lawed by the Spanish con­quis­ta­dores for cen­turies. It was a food sta­ple for the Incas, who called it the moth­er of all grains.” In an attempt to fur­ther erase indige­nous cul­ture, the Spanish destroyed any quinoa fields they could get their hands on and deter­mined that any­one caught grow­ing this crop would be severe­ly pun­ished.

Native pop­u­la­tions were forced to grow European crops like wheat or bar­ley instead. For almost 500 years, quinoa seemed to have van­ished from the face of the Earth. But some­time in the 20th cen­tu­ry a slow resur­gence start­ed with the cul­ti­va­tion of a few vari­eties that had sur­vived colo­nial per­se­cu­tion, even­tu­al­ly lead­ing the grain to its super­food sta­tus of today.

So basi­cal­ly quinoa was almost com­plete­ly wiped out because of colo­nial­ism, and now wealthy coun­tries seem to not be able to get enough of it, once again [bar­ring] native South American pop­u­la­tions from con­sum­ing it.

Zara: So what’s the solu­tion?

Luiza: There isn’t one, real­ly. Boycotting quinoa won’t help, and there have been real ben­e­fits to those who live off the cul­ti­va­tion of the grain. While it might sound patron­iz­ing to say that the grain is bring­ing wealth to regions who have strug­gled with pover­ty for cen­turies and then sug­gest that the­se peo­ple are not using this new­found wealth in an appro­pri­ate way, it is essen­tial to under­stand how the­se dietary choic­es are root­ed not in free will but in a sort of food neo­colo­nial­ism.

Zara: Food neo­colo­nial­ism? What do you mean?

Luiza: To explain what I mean by food neo­colo­nial­ism” I think it would be good to provide a cou­ple more exam­ples of this pat­tern that seems to keep repeat­ing itself.

Amaranth is a good exam­ple for this. It has a very sim­i­lar sto­ry to quinoa. An ancient grain eat­en by the Mexican Nahua peo­ples, also known as Aztecs, ama­ran­th was almost com­plete­ly wiped out after the Spanish inva­sion. The plant had a pow­er­ful and pro­found spir­i­tu­al mean­ing and was inti­mate­ly tied to Nahua reli­gious rit­u­als.

The seed was mixed with hon­ey and used to form images of deities which were left to dry. After they were firm, the­se images were bro­ken into pieces so that peo­ple could eat what was seen as part of God. Of course the Christian Spaniards would have none of this, which they con­sid­ered a mock­ery of the Holy Communion. So in the quest for cat­e­chiz­ing the Nahuas and eras­ing their cul­ture, ama­ran­th was out­lawed. Anyone who was found to be cul­ti­vat­ing ama­ran­th was severe­ly pun­ished. It is said that pos­ses­sion of even a sin­gle seed could lead you to have both hands chopped off.

For cen­turies, ama­ran­th was thought to be lost. But wild seeds were recov­ered in Mexico’s Sierra Madre in the 1970s. Modern cul­ti­va­tion tech­nolo­gies have allowed for crops to be grown once again. In Modern Mexico, Nahua cul­ture lives on in sweets called ale­gría,” made out of ama­ran­th and hon­ey. Stripped from its orig­i­nal sig­nif­i­cance, ama­ran­th is also a ris­ing trend in health-conscious cir­cles in devel­oped coun­tries. Additionally, the plant is now being researched for pos­si­ble use in a wide range of areas from ani­mal feed to the pre­ven­tion of chron­ic dis­eases.

Much like quinoa, ama­ran­th, a plant that went almost extinct in the colo­nial quest for sub­ju­ga­tion, is now a source of wealth and health for the suc­ces­sors of the con­quis­ta­dores.

Another sim­i­lar case (you see, it’s real­ly a pat­tern) is that of cañahua. A crop that has been grown for cen­turies in the Andean region, it is now under threat of dis­ap­pear­ing. The impor­tance of cañahua lies it its abil­i­ty to sur­vive weath­er con­di­tions that would kill oth­er plants, quinoa includ­ed, as well as its high nutri­tion­al val­ue. Before the col­o­niza­tion and the the intro­duc­tion of dairy prod­ucts in the Andean region, cañahua was used to wean infants from their mother’s milk due to its high cal­ci­um con­tent. It is also very effi­cient in fuel­ing the human body in high alti­tudes. Rich in iron, it helps red blood cells car­ry oxy­gen.

Being a nutri­tious grain that’s able to sur­vive rough weath­er, cañahua could be an extreme­ly impor­tant food source in times of chang­ing, increas­ing­ly harsh cli­mate. It could mean a reli­able food source for mil­lions of peo­ple who would oth­er­wise starve or suf­fer from mal­nour­ish­ment. However, cañahua is not near­ly as trendy or prof­itable as quinoa, mak­ing it a less attrac­tive crop for both local farm­ers and researchers aim­ing to devel­op bet­ter vari­eties. In fact, the num­ber of farm­ers grow­ing cañahua seems to be dimin­ish­ing, and many fear that this lack of inter­est in the grain may lead to its extinc­tion.

In this case, the bot­tom line is that a food sta­ple for poor­er com­mu­ni­ties risks extinc­tion not because it has been out­lawed, as ama­ran­th and quinoa have, but because it is not what the neolib­er­al food mar­ket wants. This is what I mean when I talk about food neo­colo­nial­ism. The exploita­tion of tra­di­tion­al food resources by neo­colo­nial pow­ers.

In the com­pet­i­tive food­ie world, the neolib­er­al palate craves for diver­si­ty, for new fla­vors, for health and pros­per­i­ty. So it returns to the very same food­stuffs that its colo­nial pre­de­ces­sors tried to elim­i­nate, strips them of their sig­nif­i­cance as cul­tur­al arti­facts, appro­pri­ates their tastes and tex­tures, and dress­es them in neo­colo­nial fla­vors. As shown by the case of quinoa and cañahua, this dish tends to come with a side of mal­nu­tri­tion for peo­ple who have tra­di­tion­al­ly sub­sist­ed on the­se foods, cour­tesy of the neo­colo­nial food tech­nolo­gies that allow for the mass-production and mar­ket­ing of the colonizer’s food sub­sti­tutes. Healthy eat­ing, after all, is a priv­i­lege for the few.

Zara: That’s a real­ly con­crete exam­ple of what we were men­tion­ing ear­lier, of food being so close­ly tied to iden­ti­ty and rec­og­nized as a way of sup­press­ing iden­ti­ty. But what about using food in the oppo­site way, as a way of assim­i­la­tion into a cul­ture?

Luiza: As much as col­o­niz­ers knew that sub­sti­tut­ing native food sta­ples with their own foods was a handy strat­e­gy in the process of assim­i­la­tion in the col­o­niza­tion of the Americas, they also knew how to use cer­tain foods to their advan­tage.

As a Brazilian, there is one root that I have a very soft spot for: the man­ioc root, also known as cas­sava root. In Brazil, we eat it with pret­ty much every­thing. The weird tasty sand that we eat as a side to fei­joada, our nation­al dish, is actu­al­ly toast­ed coarse cas­sava flour. Pão de quei­jo, a sort of cheese bread that is one of the most deli­cious things known to humankind, is made out of cas­sava starch. We eat cas­sava boiled and topped with a bit of but­ter for break­fast. We deep-fry it and eat it as a snack with a cold beer, some­thing that is hon­est­ly a mil­lion times tastier than reg­u­lar fries. This starchy, slight­ly sour root to me tastes like home. 

It’s no sur­prise that cas­sava is so impor­tant to Brazilians. The indige­nous peo­ples of Northeastern Brazil are thought to have been the first to learn to cul­ti­vate and pre­pare it, which is very impor­tant given that some vari­eties are extreme­ly poi­so­nous if pre­pared incor­rect­ly. According to anthro­pol­o­gist Sophie Coe, even though European col­o­niz­ers fre­quent­ly dis­liked the tast­ed of cas­sava, they soon under­stood the val­ue of the plant. It was easy to grow, pro­vid­ed lots of ener­gy due to its high starch con­tent, and can be cul­ti­vat­ed pret­ty much in any place with a trop­i­cal cli­mate.

Zara: It sounds like it could be pret­ty use­ful, then.

Luiza: Exactly. Coe observes that the cul­ti­va­tion of cas­sava was key to the col­o­niza­tion of the trop­i­cal Americas, pro­vid­ing a major source of cheap, fill­ing calo­ries for the armies of the slavers and the ones they enslaved. Eventually the root was tak­en by the Portuguese to West Africa, where it remains a sta­ple in many cuisi­nes of the region to this day, and to Asia by the Spaniards, to the Philippines. 

From there, the root spread through­out Southeast and East Asia, and today it’s even present in your bub­ble tea.

Zara: Bubble tea? You mean the lit­tle bub­bles?

Luiza: Yes! They’re made of cas­sava starch, though you prob­a­bly know it as tapi­o­ca.

Zara: Let’s take a look at the big­ger pic­ture. What’s hap­pen­ing to affect glob­al trends around food and hunger?

To put it in con­text, in 2014 some 795 mil­lion peo­ple in the world did not have enough food to lead a healthy, active life. That’s about one in nine peo­ple on Earth. The vast major­i­ty of the world’s hun­gry peo­ple live in devel­op­ing coun­tries, where 13.5% of the pop­u­la­tion is under-nourished.

Luiza: Wow. So what are peo­ple in rich coun­tries who are less affect­ed by the­se prob­lems doing to help alle­vi­ate this?

Zara: Sadly, don’t get ahead of your­self with assum­ing that hunger alle­vi­a­tion is the main focus. Take, for exam­ple, food spec­u­la­tion finan­cial insti­tu­tions and banks in rich coun­tries are engag­ing in. This might get a bit con­fus­ing, but I’ll try and explain the basics.

Within the agri­cul­tur­al com­modi­ties mar­ket, there are basi­cal­ly two mar­kets. Firstly the phys­i­cal mar­ket, known as the spot mar­ket,” where phys­i­cal quan­ti­ties of wheat, corn, and rice, for exam­ple, are exchanged. Secondly, the mar­ket for deriv­a­tives. A deriv­a­tive is a finan­cial con­tract which does not involve the trade of any real pro­duct, though it is ulti­mate­ly based on the trade of some­thing real. So its val­ue is derived from a real trade. In the mar­ket for deriv­a­tives, peo­ple trade the right to sell, and the right to buy, with­in a few months, and this is known as the futures mar­ket. A future is just one form of a deriv­a­tive con­tract.

Until recent­ly, the­se two mar­kets were work­ing togeth­er. The futures mar­ket allowed peo­ple to hedge again­st risk, and help them work out what prices they should use. But since 2005, the futures mar­ket for deriv­a­tives was com­plete­ly desta­bi­lized because huge finan­cial investors made invest­ments not based on their actu­al expec­ta­tions of sup­ply and demand, but based pure­ly on a finan­cial gam­ble.

Luiza: So what does this mean?

Zara: This meant that food became some­thing of a gam­ble. Traders would stock the food instead of sell­ing it, even if peo­ple were going hun­gry, just to make more mon­ey. Buyers might buy as soon as pos­si­ble. States might impose export bans because they feared that prices would con­tin­ue to rise. All that to say the mar­ket is total­ly unpre­dictable and dif­fi­cult to read.

Luiza: Who does this affect most?

Zara: Well, every­one. But espe­cial­ly those liv­ing in frag­ile sit­u­a­tions, like pro­duc­ers and poor import­ing coun­tries.

Luiza: Why would com­pa­nies do this?

Zara: They’re mak­ing lots of mon­ey. Barclays, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, and Morgan Stanley togeth­er made an esti­mat­ed £2.2 bil­lion in spec­u­lat­ing on food between 2010 and 2012.

Luiza: So what’s hap­pen­ing now?

Zara: In respon­se to this, the EU has moved towards reg­u­la­tion of mar­kets in the hope that this kind of thing won’t hap­pen as much. This lim­its the num­ber of con­tracts on cer­tain food sta­ples so we’ll see how effec­tive this is in the future.

Luiza: What else do we have to look for­ward to in the field of tech­nol­o­gy in food?

Zara: Lots. The buzz­words here might be the Internet of Food,” match­ing the Internet of Things, or even Food 2.0. In the first half of 2014 alone, food and bev­er­age star­tups attract­ed $1.1 bil­lion in ven­ture fund­ing world­wide. Just a cou­ple of weeks ago, a long arti­cle appeared in the British news­pa­per The Telegraph. It out­lined some upcom­ing trends in high-tech food, like Soylent, a food sub­sti­tu­tion made out of algae oil and oth­er things. Its mak­er, Rob Rhinehart, has been liv­ing off Soylent for the last two years, and his stat­ed goal is that only the rich will cook.

Luiza: What? I love cook­ing.

Zara: Yeah, me too. But he sees cook­ing as an unnec­es­sary and inef­fi­cient chore.

Luiza: But what about the cul­ture and iden­ti­ty around cook­ing?

Zara: Exactly. This total dis­re­gard for the cul­tur­al role that food plays is incred­i­bly myopic. The role of food in bring­ing peo­ple togeth­er, in cre­at­ing a meet­ing place, a dis­cus­sion place, is real­ly promi­nent in parts of the world.

For exam­ple, in Spanish the word sobreme­sa” means the time spent hang­ing out at a table after eat­ing. Not rush­ing, and enjoy­ing the time togeth­er. In many cul­tures if not all, food, cul­ture, and iden­ti­ty are tight­ly inter­twined. But some­how, among all of the inno­va­tions list­ed in that Telegraph arti­cle, this rela­tion­ship seems to be lost. Eating isn’t sim­ply a bio­log­i­cal activ­i­ty. It has mean­ing, sym­bol­ic asso­ci­a­tions, and cul­tur­al val­ues. But some­how the trend nowa­days is for Northern food to be val­ued above those of Southern cul­tur­al tra­di­tions. I remem­ber, for exam­ple, going to Bangladesh one time, to be tak­en to Pizza Hut, which as a sign of glob­al­iza­tion and mod­ern­iza­tion was held up as a great pro­gres­sion.

Luiza: Yes! We have the same in Brazil. The first time Burger King was opened in Rio was crazy to watch.

Zara: It’s amaz­ing how the­se big glob­al brands have come to be seen as a sign of qual­i­ty, and almost as some­thing to aspire to. But this isn’t always how it used to be. As we’ve already dis­cussed, food from the South made an invalu­able con­tri­bu­tion to eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment in the North, and they were respon­si­ble for bring­ing about fun­da­men­tal social changes in those soci­eties.

Take for exam­ple, just pri­or to the Industrial Revolution. At that time, the tra­di­tion of heavy drink­ing was so deeply embed­ded with­in con­tem­po­rary European social cus­toms that the brew­ing of beer was con­sid­ered to be part of a housewife’s reg­u­lar duties. It was esti­mat­ed that an English fam­i­ly, includ­ing chil­dren, drank about three liters of beer dai­ly, per per­son in the 17th cen­tu­ry.

Luiza: Surely drink­ing that much, peo­ple weren’t exact­ly in a state to move towards a more dis­ci­plined indus­tri­al­ized soci­ety.

Zara: Exactly. And kind of cru­cial­ly, this is when three very impor­tant non-alcoholic bev­er­ages, tea, cof­fee, and choco­late were intro­duced into European soci­ety. As well as hav­ing the effect that peo­ple could con­tin­ue drink­ing but not get drunk, the­se drinks has a wider effect upon soci­ety.

Coffeehouses were an impor­tant focus for European social life. In Europe, they became impor­tant venues for dis­cus­sions in pol­i­tics, lit­er­a­ture, arts, and busi­ness. In Paris in the 19th cen­tu­ry, cafés became a place of intel­lec­tu­al life, and where artists could meet. In London, the cof­fee­house evolved into the all-male and exclu­sive gentlemen’s club, and sad­ly the­se exclu­sive and elite insti­tu­tions still exist today. The fact they start­ed as an evo­lu­tion of cof­fee­hous­es and that cof­fee was import­ed from Ethiopia seems to be almost for­got­ten.

Luiza: So going back to Soylent. What will hap­pen to the­se inno­va­tions in the future?

Zara: The fact that most of the peo­ple involved in imag­in­ing the future of food are white North American men is huge­ly prob­lem­at­ic. As Rose Eveleth writes in a recent arti­cle about futur­ism that appeared in The Atlantic

…when only one type of per­son is engaged in ask­ing key ques­tions about a specialty—envisioning the future or otherwise—they miss a entire frame­works for iden­ti­fy­ing and solv­ing prob­lems.
Rose Eveleth, Why Aren’t There More Women Futurists?

In this case, there are all sorts of food inno­va­tions on the hori­zon. Companies like Beyond Meat, which Bill Gates invest­ed in. Or Modern Meadow, a project from the com­pa­ny start­ed by the founder of PayPal. Or the cofounders of Google are all try­ing to grow food in the lab. These com­pa­nies have, as with many of the new inno­va­tions that we talk about on this pod­cast, a very noble goal, this time of solv­ing world hunger.

Luiza: Are the­se new tech­nolo­gies real­ly the only way for­ward?

Zara: Perhaps not. A report writ­ten in 2013 by the UN out­lined that they found small-scale farm­ing to be the most effi­cient method of food pro­duc­tion. So, it looks like there are two poten­tial ways for­ward. One, going back to tra­di­tion­al meth­ods of food pro­duc­tion, and the oth­er rely­ing on the fore­sight of Silicon Valley.

Luiza: In the­o­ry, new tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions hold lots of promise, but the wor­ry is there: Who is imag­in­ing the future of food, and what does this mean for our soci­eties? Up until now at least, the dri­vers behind the­se inno­va­tions are a far cry from being rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the com­mu­ni­ties they seek to help. Quinoa, ama­ran­th, and cañahua all show us how food sys­tems have been set up in ways that nour­ish few and starve many. Systems that have been in place for cen­turies.

I’m actu­al­ly pret­ty impressed by how neat­ly every­thing fits togeth­er in the­se sys­tems. You take food from the plates of dis­en­fran­chised com­mu­ni­ties in order to nour­ish the priv­i­leged. Then sell to those same dis­en­fran­chised peo­ple food prod­ucts that are sup­posed to sub­sti­tute the orig­i­nal food. So Andean farm­ers end up sell­ing quinoa and eat­ing white bread. Brazilians in urban areas sub­sti­tute their rice and beans for a big buck­et of KFC. Bangladeshis go to Pizza Hut. 

I think we have to clar­i­fy here that we’re not advo­cat­ing for any type of food extrem­ism. Our indi­vid­u­al crav­ings are cer­tain­ly not to blame. Everyone has the right to enjoy their Big Mac or their quinoa sal­ad, if they so wish. What we need to reflect upon, though, is how the­se crav­ings are cre­at­ed, where they come from. Your desire for Big Macs or quinoa doesn’t exist in an eco­nom­ic, social, or cul­tur­al vac­u­um. It is designed by the food tech­nolo­gies, by the food sys­tems that pro­duce and mar­ket the­se foods. Nobody’s immune to it. Not even the Soylent guy, who in his quest to for­go food actu­al­ly end­ed up cre­at­ing a crav­ing, a need for…well, I hes­i­tate to call Soylent food” but you get my drift. 

As with all the top­ics that we’ve cov­ered so far in Collusion, the top­ic we’ve talked about today, food, is cru­cial to human­i­ty. We need food to live, in what­ev­er form it might come, and glob­al hunger is going to be an increas­ing­ly press­ing issue in the future. Whether we turn to small-scale farms or look to new tech­nolo­gies to help alle­vi­ate that hunger is yet to be seen. What is clear, though, is that unless the peo­ple try­ing to find solu­tions to the­se issues rec­og­nize the cru­cial role food has with­in our diverse cul­tures the­se solu­tions won’t stick.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of Collusion on food tech­nolo­gies, and until next time.

Further Reference

Research and links for this episode at the Collusion Tumblr site.


Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Square Cash, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.