Cinnamon, Potatoes, and Quinoa

Drying freshly harvested quinoa in Titicaca lakeshore landscape, Peru. By Michael Hermann, http://www.cropsforthefuture.org/; [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Drying freshly harvested quinoa in Titicaca lakeshore landscape, Peru. By Michael Hermann, http://www.cropsforthefuture.org/ 

As I started to tell people about the work I was doing on Harriet Martineau’s Cinnamon and Pearls, their immediate response was to compare the tale to a current issue of food security: quinoa.

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876)

Harriet Martineau (1802-1876)

Martineau, the first British female sociologist, writes of the monopoly of the East India Company in Ceylon, and their desire to create a market for cinnamon throughout the British Empire and its trading partners during the early nineteenth century. The result of the Company’s actions was, in Martineau’s narrative, twofold: the native Cingalese were no longer permitted to grow cinnamon of their own – it all belonged to the Company; and the market really wasn’t that interested in cinnamon, so crops had to be destroyed in order to decrease supply to match demand – in order to sustain suitably high prices.

 

Hoe men de Caneel schilt opt Eyland Ceylon [peeling cinnamon in Ceylon], c.1672. By Anonymous (engraver), Johannes Janssonius Waasbergen (publisher)

Peeling cinnamon in Ceylon, c.1672. By Anonymous (engraver), Johannes Janssonius Waasbergen (publisher)

Now, for the shareholders in the East India Company, it stands to reason that they appreciated such care; however, for the Cingalese, these circumstances meant that they were no longer able to eat from a crop that had previously been a part of their staple diet. Food security conversations need to be critiqued in terms of whose food security the speakers are concerned about. A recent online article, for instance, wrote of the problems of supply (http://www.foodnavigator-usa.com/Suppliers2/Securing-long-term-supply-key-to-success-in-chia-quinoa-spheres-marketer-says) in terms of the increased demand for quinoa in the United States. But it is important to realise that this ‘need’ is very new: it is constructed through discourses of healthy diets (particularly given the high protein content) and, importantly, ethics: for vegans and vegetarians, it is important that no animals were harmed in the making of their new food of lifestyle choice.

 

quinoa-packageExcept – animals ARE being harmed: the human animals, for whom for centuries, quinoa was the staple of their diet. Even from 2013 – declared the International Year of Quinoa by the UN – the Bolivian and Peruvian peasants who grew quinoa were suffering. Their supply needed to be exported—the West was demanding it—and they were getting paid for their crops. That does not mean they earned what we’d consider a ‘living wage,’ though, whereas previously they had a self-sustaining system of crops and harvests. It is, according to Joanna Blythman from The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jan/16/vegans-stomach-unpalatable-truth-quinoa), cheaper to buy imported junk food in these countries than it is to buy quinoa, and ‘in Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken.’ Blythman also points out that land that had been used for diverse crops was now being transformed into ‘quinoa monoculture,’ depriving the local farmers of access to other foods as well as the quinoa they can’t afford.

 

The scene at Skibbereen, west Cork, in 1847. From a series of illustrations by Cork artist James Mahony (1810-1879), commissioned by Illustrated London News, 1847

Skibbereen, west Cork, in 1847. By  James Mahony, commissioned by Illustrated London News, 1847

The concern of Western affluence for quinoa supply reminds me most profoundly of Continental Europe’s perturbance that their potato supply had diminished during the Great Potato Famine of mid-nineteenth-century Ireland. It seems to me that we are able to indulge in the ethical luxuries of the past – we are able to judge the blindness of others to the plight of those dispossessed by the British Empire and the rise of globalised capitalist industry in the nineteenth century – but we remain blind to similar acts of dispossession occurring in our own time.

 

Lesa Scholl

 

Images: CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0); Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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