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