Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

RE: “Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?”

Posted by Michael Dickens on January 17, 2013

According to this article, quinoa is harmful and vegans are making the world worse for eating it. (Lots of non-vegans eat quinoa, but whatever.)

[T]here is an unpalatable truth to face for those of us with a bag of quinoa in the larder. The appetite of countries such as ours for this grain has pushed up prices to such an extent that poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom it was once a nourishing staple food, can no longer afford to eat it. Imported junk food is cheaper. In Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken. Outside the cities, and fuelled by overseas demand, the pressure is on to turn land that once produced a portfolio of diverse crops into quinoa monoculture.

The article asserts that increased demand in quinoa is responsible for perpetuating the impoverishment of people in Bolivia and Peru, but it fails to show to what extent the rising prices of quinoa is due to increased demand in the United States, and to what extent this harms the poorer people. It just takes it for granted that it must be Americans’ fault and it must be bad.

I’m not saying that Americans are not harming poor Bolivians, but that the leap of inference is dubious. Here are some possible reasons why it might fail:

  •  Prices increased due to some factor other than increased demand in America.
  •   The increased prices help provide income for poor quinoa farmers.
  •   Bolivians and Peruvians have access to a variety of foods other than quinoa.

Again, these things are not necessarily true, but they could be and the article does not address them.

Then the author goes on a bit of a tangent about soybeans:

Soya, a foodstuff beloved of the vegan lobby as an alternative to dairy products, is another problematic import, one that drives environmental destruction [see footnote]. Embarrassingly, for those who portray [soy] as a progressive alternative to planet-destroying meat, soya production is now one of the two main causes of deforestation in South America[.]

Embarrassingly, meat-eaters are responsible for much more soybean consumption than vegans. Farmed animals eat a lot of soybeans; a pound of beef requires about five pounds of soybeans to produce. You’d have a much smaller impact (by a factor of five) if you just ate the soybeans.

The best part about this, though, is that the author admits it:

This footnote was appended on 17 January 2013. To clarify: while soya is found in a variety of health products, the majority of production – 97% according to the UN report of 2006 – is used for animal feed.

So this footnote essentially says, “Well, actually that entire paragraph was incorrect, but I’m going to go ahead and leave it there anyway.”

[A] rummage through the shopping baskets of vegetarians and vegans swiftly clocks up the food miles, a consequence of their higher dependency on products imported from faraway places[.]

I suppose the implication here is that veg*nism is not environmentally friendly, which is completely bogus. Eating meat accounts for a majority of most people’s greenhouse gas emissions and is responsible for a disproportionately large amount of land and water use (see here for more information). Similarly, the article sets up quinoa as a replacement for meat, but misses the fact that meat has a much more strongly negative political and environmental impact than quinoa.

This article smells distinctly of “I love meat so I’m going to try to make up reasons why being vegan is worse than being an omnivore.”

I frequently see articles about how some particular food or product is harmful in some way. Lots of such products exist, and lots more don’t even have articles written about them. But how can we know which products are the most important to avoid? I would like to see some sort of scientific review that rigorously examines the impacts of hundreds of the most popular products and compares them along a number of dimensions (effect on local economies, labor conditions for the workers, greenhouse gas emissions, etc.). But it the absence of any such review, it does not make sense to avoid every product that some article says is bad. Instead, we have to focus on the most important choices. The choice to eat or not to eat animal products is by far the most important choice we can make as consumers. For more on why this is so important, please read “Animal Suffering”.

Edit: This article addresses some of the points raised here. In particular, it offers some anecdotal evidence that poor Bolivians have no difficulty affording food (although the evidence is difficult to verify).

This article specifically responds to the Guardian piece.

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