Scandal, Blame, and the Politics of Contamination in Peru’s Quinoa Bust

A farmer association meets to discuss how they will confront the contamination crisis. Photo by author.

Editorial Note: This post is part of our series highlighting the work of the Anthropology and Environment Society’s 2019 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists. We asked them to outline the argument they made in their submission and to situate their work in relation to the field of environmental anthropology.

By Emma McDonell, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga §

A farmer association meets to discuss how they will confront the contamination crisis. Photo by author.

ABSTRACT: Soon after the quinoa boom peaked in 2014, quinoa prices plummeted drastically. This was due at once to the increase in production that was outpacing rising international demand–something made possible by the development of quinoa production in new regions of Peru and the corresponding introduction of chemical pesticides and fertilizers–and the eruption of contamination scandals in which hundreds of tons of Peruvian quinoa were rejected from the United States port of entry for exceeding allowable limits of chemicals and heavy metals. Small farmers in the Peruvian highlands blamed contamination on large-scale coastal quinoa producers who had only recently taken up quinoa production, but when shipments from the highlands began testing positive for chemicals in late 2015, this argument became difficult to maintain.

This paper examines the politics of contamination in Peru’s quinoa boom-bust. Drawing on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2014 and 2018, it explores how entangled issues of toxicity, adulteration, and smuggling shifted over the course of the boom-bust trajectory. Interrogating the relationships between contamination and trust in commodity chains, it focuses in on how ideas about environmentally friendly quinoa production came up against market pressures encouraging farmers to increase production at whatever cost. The paper focuses on the erosion of trust among and between different groups of actors along the quinoa commodity chain, including farmers, buyers, processors, and exporters, and explores the resulting attempts to develop surveillance apparatuses to ensure the “purity” of the product and the land upon which it was produced. Engaging classic anthropological conversations on relationships of trust with emerging work in environmental anthropology calling for more attention to the materiality, this paper asks us to think through the politics of environmental contamination and toxicity as inextricably connected to dynamics of distrust and secrecy, along with culturally situated ideas about duty and responsibility.

“We’ve lost our reputation. No one has trust in Puno’s quinoa anymore,” lamented Paolo, a quinoa buyer and processor who had let go of the entirety of his full-time field tech staff over the past year and a half and was now exclusively buying quinoa from itinerant buyers to process and sell to brokers in Lima: “The price is so low now and buying quinoa is just too complicated these days with all the contamination problems.”

When I arrived in Puno, Peru—the country’s quinoa production hub—for dissertation fieldwork in 2016, the quinoa boom had indisputably busted. After peaking at $6.27/kg in early 2014, the price of quinoa (at port) had tumbled to $2.50/kg by early 2016—a dynamic largely attributable to a production glut so intense that quinoa production had outpaced a still quickly rising demand. At the same time as the industry was dealing with plummeting prices, contamination scandals erupted after a series of containers of Peruvian quinoa were rejected from US ports of entry for exceeding allowable limits of a number of chemical pesticides, generating a wholesale crisis of trust among Peru’s quinoa industry actors.

Farmers rush to manually winnow their quinoa during a quinoa buy. Photo by author.

My paper, “Scandal, Blame, and the Politics of Contamination in Peru’s Quinoa Bust,” examines the contamination scandals that erupted during the height of the quinoa boom and the deterioration of trust that they precipitated. I analyze the competing tales of blame different industry actors circulated about contaminated quinoa, situating them within the entangled crises of reputation, trust, and price that Puno’s quinoa industry faced during the quinoa bust. The mixing of quinoa in the supply chain—mixing of quinoa from many farmers, from different itinerant buyers—made it impossible to pinpoint who was contaminating the quinoa and how. This breakdown of trust led to calls for supply chain “traceability” and the creation of a surveillance apparatus.

Examining these blame narratives reveals ambivalent alliances and emergent fissures between different groups of actors along the chain, and the underlying assumptions different groups make about one another. The paper reveals the ways suspicion and distrust reverberate along the different trade relationships, arguing that the contamination scandals at once magnified existing tensions and generated new forms of distrust and new forms of credibility.

The paper is part of my broader project about the cultural politics of the quinoa boom-bust trajectory in Peru. Based on long-term fieldwork in Puno and Lima, Peru, this longitudinal study follows two main inquires. First, it examines the symbolic, material, and political work that went into making quinoa one of Peru’s most valuable agricultural exports, a darling of the international development world, and a symbol of national identity in Peru. What work goes into transforming a disparaged “Indian food” transform into a globally circulated commodity and symbol of national identity? Who does this work and how? What new meanings and narratives were created to make quinoa valuable to new audiences and who disseminated these stories? How was quinoa itself physically transformed through the generation of quality standards? What kinds of alliances and tensions characterized the emergent global quinoa commodity chain?

Second, it examines how power dynamics in the quinoa commodity chain shift over the course of the boom and bust, describing emergent fissures and ambivalent partnerships. Taking a longitudinal perspective, it explores how diversely positioned industry actors attempt to navigate increasing market competition, price fluctuations, and extreme climate uncertainty.

The stumps of recently harvested quinoa and the sickle used for manual harvesting. Photo by author.

This project brings commodity chain ethnography in conversation with the anthropology of bureaucracy and an emergent anthropological interest in the materiality of toxicity and chemical flows. Power relations in the quinoa commodity chain are remade by the emergence of contamination scandals and the ensuing effort create a surveillance apparatus.

One key dynamic was the emergence of the chemical analysis as the authority on quinoa’s purity—a new form of credibility. Rather than relying upon the organic certification apparatus, which was delegitimized by the contamination scandals, actors along the commodity chain now brought quinoa samples to laboratories to verify that the quinoa was limpio (clean) before buying it. Critically, the analyses were expensive, and only available to those with economic means. Demonstrating the ways that the analysis is wielded and used not just to verify but to deflect blame. I argue that it is not just the expansion of surveillance that matters to the politics of industry relationships but the specifics of the technique of surveillance and who has the means of surveillance that matters to how power is remade.

Emma McDonell holds a PhD in Anthropology from Indiana University and is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Her research is concerned with relationships between commodity booms and busts, supply chains, food systems, and the politics of representation. She’s currently working on a book about the cultural and ecological politics of the quinoa boom and bust in Peru.

This post is part of our series, 2019 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists.