31 July 2012

The not-so-perfect protein

Editor's note: James Workman taught "Unlocking the Real Worth of Water" as a visiting professor at Wesleyan University last semester. He told his students that they -- like all people -- needed to be "water resource managers" because water allocations are increasingly driven by subjective individual values, not top-down planing. The students addressed these ideas from different perspectives (local utility, energy/water nexus, and water and food trade); each choose one essay to post here. Please tell them what they got right or wrong.

Haley Greenberg writes...

Organic, whole grain, gluten-free, fair trade? Sounds good to me, and undoubtedly every other Whole Foods shopper. Our health-conscious, foody-nation, however, may have more to learn than just how good quinoa is for our waistlines.

Quinoa, often mistaken for a grain, is actually more like a beet than barley. This curious chenopod has certainly exploded as a new “it” food in the US as a healthier alternative to rice or pasta. With increased international demand for their good, quinoa farmers in the Bolivian highlands have been able to better their farms and families with new equipment and investments in better housing and education. Bolivian consumers, on the other hand, have been less fortunate, struggling to meet nutrition needs.

Capitalizing on the wonders of the global free-market economy, Bolivian exporters are definitely in the midst of a global boom. But, the question is, will they soon feel a local bust from exploiting the complementary wonders of the global virtual-water trade system? Perhaps more so than virtual-water and international trade flow analysts may like to admit.

Quinoa production is part of the 15% of global agriculture water that is used for export instead of domestic consumption. It is part of the 5% of global water savings due to the virtual-water-international trade system that takes into account all the water needed to grow and ship goods. Specifically, the 50,000 tons of quinoa produced each year globally requires less water than the intensive natural gas and zinc mining that dominate Bolivian’s export economy. Quinoa only accounts for only 0.003% of global water consumption.

As a relatively drought-tolerant crop with low water requirements, then, quinoa should be grown for export in water-scarce Bolivia. Further, high prices do seem to reflect the opportunity cost and degradation that accompanies increased production. Why then, if this international virtual-water trade system is such a convincing global solution to these increasingly integrated problems, does quinoa trade seem to be failing at the local level?

Even with benefits from increased demands, Bolivian consumers face concerns of malnutrition and unmitigated land degradation. Quinoa may be a tasty, healthy food choice for American elites, but what was once a staple in Bolivians’ diets, is now too expensive for the everyday consumer. Alternatively, as farmers and their families are able to live more comfortably, they look to now affordable, less nutritious food options like Coca Cola to show they’ve gotten that much closer to the globalized American symbol of success.

In addition to concerns for changed eating habits, a tragedy of the commons has taken hold of the once free, open expanse of unfarmed land to meet demands. As a result, soil erosion and degradation are more threatening than ever before; llamas have even been moved to make room for more growing space, taking with them their natural supply of fertilizer.

Amidst a firmly rooted, institutionalized global market economy, quinoa trade seems to be working, but while Bolivians have little opportunity to self-organize or self-regulate, the longevity of the system and its ability to stay intact through variables like global climate change and international instability is in question. As water stress and food production become increasingly integrated and global, international solutions like virtual-water trade may help mitigate the crisis on a global scale. The fear is that this one, global solution risks the durability and integrity of local systems. The question, then, is how does Bolivia and other water-scarce nations shift from inappropriate exports like natural gas, resist nutrition and land exploitation, AND engage in international virtual-water trade. Until we find a balance, increased international trade only makes matters worse.

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