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.