The Effects of Our Cultural Food Appropriations


world_1630_mural_lg Food fads are a very interesting subject that I addressed in my post about the Bacon Renaissance. Some food fads die out over time, but some are here for good. One interesting pattern we can follow through history is the phenomenon of one culture’s foods being appropriated by another.

In examining these food-based epidemics of history, we can see that they’re not without their benefits and many enjoy complete sustainability. Tea is an excellent example of a product that once took the world by storm, enrapturing entire nations and integrating permanently into thousands of societies. Today, tea is appreciated worldwide and almost entirely sustained from just several regions of the planet.

Tea is a success story, but not all foods can make their way to global fame and acceptance in such a sustainable manner. Today’s topics will be quinoa, a South American “super food”, and Bluefin Tuna, a large, predatory fish native to several of the world’s oceans.

Bolivia and The Great Quinoa Boom

Quinoa is nutrient dense pseudo-cereal (actually a seed) that has been cultivated in the Andean regions of South America for thousands of years. Riding the great wave of health foods through popular culture, it has made its way onto shelves of grocery store across the nations. It’s hip, its versatile, but most of all, it’s packed with nutrients. Quinoa is a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. It is packed with potassium, protein, fiber, magnesium, and vitamin B-6, with very low levels of cholesterol and fat. But there’s a catch.

As previously mentioned, quinoa has been growing in the Andes for centuries. The Peru and Bolivia has produced around 92% of the world’s quinoa, much of this coming from the Altiplano region of Bolivia.

While this boom in demand seems like a blessing to the poor Bolivian farmers, certain socioeconomic and agricultural concerns have come to the attention of researchers, scientists and of course, Bolivians.

The Bolivian altiplano is made primarily up of small farms called minifundios. Most of these farms have been serving the families and communities living on them for year. They have not been accustomed to gross production. New technologies and methods must be introduced, which can disrupt the social organization and delicate ecosystem of this region.

Many of the farmers have also been practicing traditional farming methods using manual plowing, animal husbandry, crop rotations and fallow to keep the homeostasis of the soil nutrients in proper balance for farming. Naturally, potatoes and llamas are being edged out in favor of the more profitable quinoa, now being exported in bulk to nations like the US and Canada.

The quinoa boom is not all bad, don’t get me wrong. Quinoa is being investigated for its potential to address global food security in climate change. Bolivia is a poor nation that can use the economic influx, but it’s important to know that many of the producers are not raising crops in a sustainable way. This is true of many agricultural endeavors across the world, but many people don’t realize how much their purchasing power is really  worth.

Overfishing for Tuna

Another current trend in food appropriations we’re witnessing is that of the Bluefin Tuna and its popularity among the world’s sushi eaters. As the number of sushi restaurants increases, so seems to decrease the stocks of Bluefin Tuna. Sushi lovers cherish this fish for its fatty underbelly, or toro. The Scientific Committee for Tuna and Tuna-like Species in the North Pacific Ocean of 2014 estimates that Bluefin Tuna stock has suffered a 96% from unfished levels.

So what’s the point I’m trying to make? 

The socioeconomic and environmental impact of globalization is huge. As we continue to thrive as a species and find new ways to utilize technology and our finite and renewable natural resources, the need for adaptation is critical. In order to preserve earth’s assets, the acknowledgement and establishment of a symbiotic relationship with our planet and its other inhabitants will be the responsibility of the current and future generations.

If the past is any indicator, we can take it in confidence that we humans require a great deal of persuading when it comes to capital gains versus environmental conservation. Both the sushi industry and the health food industry, with quinoa’s success at the forefront, are enormously successful enterprises, so it will probably take the world some convincing to realize what we’re doing with our indiscriminate importation and consumption of foods we cannot locally produce.

So then, the responsibility starts with us, the consumers. Consumerism drives our world today. If people aren’t buying it, no one will sell it. That means if we’re not supporting companies that are environmentally irresponsible, there is no place for them in our economy. Personally, I’ve stopped buying quinoa. When I first learned about it, I bought a giant bag at Costco every month, but after learning about its procurement, I stopped. There are a lot more local, sustainable things I can have as staples in my diet that come at a much lower global cost. Like lentils! Eat lentils, guys. But that’s a story for another post…