Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Ethical eating and the law of unintended consequences

Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do for the best. We all want to be good people – let’s imagine, anyway – but it’s not always easy to know how.
The law of unintended consequences can get the best of us in a tangle. And globalisation has made it worse, knotting complication up with complexity.
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had it easy (well, in some ways). If you could hunt it or gather it, you ate it.
But air freight and the global market have increased our choices bewilderingly. And with choice comes moral responsibility. Which wouldn’t be so bad if we always knew what effects our choices would have.
Take quinoa, the “miracle grain” which first came to my notice about a decade ago and has since become a staple of vegetarian diets and wholefood restaurants.
Even knowing how to pronounce it properly (it’s “keen-wah”, not “quin-oh-a”) is a mark of a certain kind of middle-class outlook.
For those who like it (I’m not a great fan), it’s more than just an alternative to rice, apparently providing vegetarians with some of the essential nutrients others get from meat.
But here’s the rub. The rising popularity of quinoa in affluent Europe and North America has reportedly sent the price rocketing. Meaning poor people in Bolivia and Peru, where it grows, can no longer afford what used to be their staple diet.
People who used to live on healthy local quinoa are now forced to eat cheaper junk food, probably imported from the very countries that are buying the quinoa.
A typical example, surely, of the way even well-meaning people in rich countries oppress the poor elsewhere. And, incidentally, global madness on the air-miles, carbon-footprint front.
So, having acquired a taste for quinoa we should give it up again, right? Well, maybe not.
High prices may be bad news for people who buy quinoa – but they are good news for the farmers who grow it. And who, incidentally, live off it themselves too.
Some import-export companies no doubt exploit the growers, creaming off the increased profit themselves. It happens everywhere – you might almost call it the supermarket principle.
But buy quinoa from an honourable source – a certified Fair Trade company, for example – and you are helping to support farmers in an area of the high Andes where life is tough and not much else will grow.
The people worst hit by the rising price are poor town and city dwellers. They are very likely former country and village people – and the extra profit in quinoa grown for export may lure some of them back to their old homes.
So the moral question – should I or shouldn’t I buy quinoa? – is not so simply answered after all.
And a further complication is added by a recent initiative taken by the Bolivian government.
They have added quinoa to subsidies for new mothers and to the daily breakfast provided to schoolchildren. (Now there’s an idea that might seem strange in post-Thatcher Britain.) Improving the diet of kids and mums and simultaneously supporting the economy of the rural Andes.
So by picking up that pack in the wholefood shop, are you taking food out of the mouths of those mothers and children, or helping the mountain people? Answers on a postage stamp, please.


I was in a supermarket checkout queue, many years ago, when the little old lady in front of me suddenly keeled over. It was a long, slow queue and we’d been standing waiting for quite a while.
But there was more to it than that. As she fell, her hat came off – and out from under it a frozen chicken went rolling across the floor.
I was reminded of this funny-but-sad episode when I read a news item the other day headed: “Rise in female shoplifters linked to benefit cuts”.
Vera Baird, the Northumbria police and crime commissioner, said: “There is an increase in the theft of food, and an increase in first-time women offenders. It is not about increasing moral depravity. It is about people who feel under real pressure.”
The Durham commissioner, Ron Hogg, said people were “stealing food just to live”.
Which may or may not have been the case with the man charged last week under the 190-year-old Vagrancy Act with “stealing” food from a skip at the back of an Iceland store in London.
How you can steal something that’s already been thrown away, I’m not sure. Top marks to Iceland for persuading the Crown Prosecution Service to drop the case.
The mere fact that the police ever thought it worth pursuing casts another disturbing light on the scandal of junked food. And on the hunger that drives people to steal.
Some “economic recovery”. Some things you just can’t keep under your hat.

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