The Guardian has a story about quinoa — specifically, how the global demand for this once obscure grain, a staple in the Peruvian and Bolivian diet, has become so expensive that the Peruvians and Bolivians can no longer afford it. The article “blames” (for lack of a better word) the demand created by vegetarians and people who are looking for “healthier” food options. A rejoinder in Mother Jones points out that even non-vegetarians eat quinoa (links to both articles via Chocolate & Zucchini).
The situation is familiar. Like Bolivia and Peru, the Philippines is a Third World country where, up until two decades ago when we began exporting our professionals and skilled laborers, agriculture was the main and biggest industry. The problem of Bolivia and Peru with quinoa is the same problem we have with our rice, fish, bananas, pineapples, mangoes, ad infinitum. We export them all. It has come to a point when we started exporting so much that the supply to feed the domestic population dwindled, making prices skyrocket.
But, in the Philippine experience, the rising global demand vis a vis globalization and the relaxation of import-export quotas, are merely incidental. We’re not exactly suffering the higher prices of staples like rice and fish because more foreign consumers demand our produce — we’re left with little to feed the population because it is not us who decide where the produce should go.
I don’t know who own the big agricultural lands in Bolivia and Peru. But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, Third World countries share a pattern where the lands and the means of production are owned by a few wealthy families. The farmers who till the land get paid, or get a share of the crops, but the bulk of the produce is sold by the landowners to whoever and however they want. If exporting will mean higher profits, they will export. It is inconsequential to them if it means that the much lower domestic supply will mean higher prices for the population, majority of whom will not be able to afford basic food items like rice and fish.
In an ideal world, what a country exports would only be the excess of the amount needed for domestic consumption. But the buying power of the domestic population of Third World countries is much lower. If the average Juan in the Philippines can only afford forty pesos for a kilo of rice while another consumer on the other side of the globe can, and is willing, to pay twice as much, the landowner will sell his produce abroad.
The irony would be funny if it weren’t so sad. IRRI, or the International Rice Research Institute, is headquartered in the Philippines. We have the best think tanks in the country to enable us to produce the best rice in the most abundant way. But, guess what? We’ve been importing rice from Thailand and Vietnam over the past decade because we don’t have enough to feed our people. While it is true that natural calamities (so many storms and typhoons in a year) result in huge crop losses, it is just as true that we hardly export less even on those seasons that we produce less. We just keep leaving less for domestic consumption.
And it isn’t just rice. The same is true with seafood. Foreign corporations fish in our waters, the fish don’t even land on our shores but are shipped directly to the home countries of these corporations where a portion will be sold to their local consumers while the rest will be exported to other parts of the world. What we get, what get sold locally, what land in our kitchens are the rejects — the shrimps that aren’t large nor perfectly shaped enough, the tuna with the torn flesh, the clams with the cracked shells, none of which will command a high price in wealthier countries.
Our locally produced fruits will likely go the same route.
Whose problem is it, really? Should the diner in New York care that he can eat Manila clams because some poor family was deprived of the shellfish? Is the average consumer in First World countries informed enough to ask how and why he has access to the choicest seafood from the tropics?
Or is it our internal problem — we who are still living in an economy that should have gone out of style when feudal lords were stripped off of their private armies, estates and power?
It has often been said that where there is no buyer, there would be no seller. I’ve heard that argument used in prostitution and I don’t think it is wrong to use it when talking about the food export industry.