Afew years ago the New York Times reported from Bolivia that quinoa, once a staple food of the Andean highlands, had become too expensive for local consumers, who were finding themselves priced out by the booming export market. Quinoa farmers may have benefited from growing demand in the us and Europe, but quinoa’s popularity among health-conscious rich-world consumers was helping to push Bolivians towards cheaper, processed foods. Domestic consumption of the pearly grains declined by a third between 2005 and 2010, as the export price tripled. Malnutrition is up in quinoa-growing regions. Other reports described bitter battles over prime plots, with dozens injured when farmers fought with slings and sticks of dynamite over what was once abandoned land.footnote1
The Times has certainly done its share to spread the gospel of quinoa. In recent years the paper has published dozens of articles on preparing quinoa, with recipes ranging from an edamame and corn salad to a quick-cooking breakfast porridge, pancakes, a wholewheat–quinoa bread and ‘chard cakes’. Early recipes emphasized substitutability, with quinoa taking the place of cracked wheat in summer salads and brown rice in pilafs. Later entries in the series have exploited quinoa’s exceptional protein content, which lends moistness and structure to baked goods. The Times’s resident quinoa evangelist, Martha Rose Shulman, has responded to the chenopod’s newfound popularity by urging a return to basics (tabouli, roasted-beet pilaf), encouraging readers to buy Fair Trade Certified quinoa, and pushing the less widely available red and black varieties. Any doubt that the grain had been indigenized was dispelled in April 2011, when the Times reported consternation in the North American Jewish community over whether quinoa was kosher for Passover.footnote2
The quinoa conundrum seems to cry out for a response from food-justice activists, but what form this should take is a matter of contention. These days—and this is not intended as a trivialization—food justice is hot. In intensively developed markets such as New York, consumer awareness of the social and environmental factors involved in the availability, nutritional quality and long-term viability of food products is at a level that was unimaginable when Frances Moore Lappé published Diet for a Small Planet in 1971. A growing body of work has encouraged millions of rich-world eaters to revise their food-consumption habits, taking into account energy and water footprint, spoilage, the environmental costs of long-distance transport, the vitiation of plant and animal genetic diversity, the human misery of labour-intensive production, and the suffering of animals raised in confinement.footnote3 There have been protests against the concentration of ownership in genetic resources for agriculture and the distortion of commodity prices wrought by speculation in agricultural derivatives.footnote4 The latest wave of activism has both built on and inspired a new generation of food-centred geography and rural sociology, along with a new discipline: food studies. Critical works include Marion Nestle’s Food Politics and Julie Guthman’s Agrarian Dreams and, more recently, Weighing In.footnote5
Part of what has made food justice attractive to such a broad audience is a new emphasis on pleasure. The distance between critical and enthusiast modes of food commentary has shrunk considerably in the past ten years. Indeed, it is often those whose love of food is most intense, most chthonic, who are held to be best positioned to comment on what is wrong with the food system and how it might be fixed. It is now common, in food-activist circles, for independent farmers to be consulted as authorities on how a tomato (or a peach, or a pork loin) should taste—and, by extension, how food could be grown so that the sensual pleasures of an earthy diet can be extended to all. This is a gratifying development, at least for speciality produce growers who live near major markets. But the apotheosis of sensual pleasure arrived hand in hand with a neoliberal turn in food-justice activism. Too often today, activists imagine the reform of the global food system as something that will grow organically out of a revolution in individual household choices. This perspective essentially addresses those who are not only passionately concerned with the environmental unsustainability and growing health disparities of the food system, but who also possess the discretionary time and wealth to develop a fondness for charismatic microproduce.
The consumer-choice vision—a product of what Guthman has referred to as the alternative foods movement—offers no way to talk about how food systems reproduce social dynamics that are not just about what we eat. Activists may recognize the systemic failures of capitalist food production—the overproduction of commodity crops, maize in particular, is seen as a driving factor in what they take to be the debasement of American eating habits over the past generation.footnote6 But they pull back from inferring from this a need to remake the system itself. Since the 1980s, the turn towards personal responsibility has served to delaminate the alternative foods movement from farmers’ rights and food-sovereignty appeals, on the one hand, and from campaigns to regulate the health hazards of industrial agriculture on the other.footnote7
It is perhaps no surprise that the alternative foods movement would come to overlap with the tech-startup world. Lately there has been a lot of buzz in alternative-food circles around concepts like ‘Farming 2.0’, open-source agriculture and hacking the food system.footnote8 The gist of much of this commentary is that the problem with past efforts to infuse agriculture with technology was that the tech has been biotech and the interventions were focused primarily on making plants do things they were not evolved to do: grow twice as big, twice as fast, absorbing twice the fixed nitrogen and phosphorus. The Green Revolution, the Farming 2.0 arguments go, did not increase yields so much as compress them into a shorter time window, while leaving farmers more vulnerable than ever to anomalies in the climate and business cycles. The way to ensure a reliable food supply for all was not by telling farmers that they didn’t understand the science of selecting and growing crops, but by using information technology to match producers with consumers and eliminate inefficiencies in the supply chain, while allowing farmers to protect themselves by growing a wider range of crops. Connecting independent food producers directly to the public: this is the hack.
Crop scientists, on the other hand, have been calling for a different kind of technological intervention: a globally coordinated project of sustainable intensification, short on the kind of social-networking ventures popular among alternative food activists and long on science-driven programmes of breeding and genetic modification to equip food crops with drought, flood, pest and rust resistance, as well as desirable micronutrient profiles. These proposals do acknowledge environmental limits to yield intensification and point to the need to reduce post-harvest losses by improving storage, transport and market access. But those calling for sustainable intensification do not talk about their proposals as hacking the food system.footnote9