It’s OK To Buy Quinoa—In Fact, It’s Good for Poor People in the Andes

What to eat. What not to eat.
Jan. 25 2013 12:55 PM

It’s OK To Eat Quinoa

Don’t buy the media’s hand-wringing about Bolivians who can’t afford quinoa. The real effects of Western demand are complicated.

Woman holds Quinoa plant.
The idea that worldwide demand for quinoa is causing undue harm where it's produced is an oversimplification at best

Photograph courtesy Alter Eco.

Many quinoa-lovers have hit the existential skids recently, thanks to a story in the Guardian about the supposedly negative effects of buying imported quinoa.

"The appetite of countries such as ours for this grain has pushed up prices to such an extent that poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom it was once a nourishing staple food, can no longer afford to eat it," writes journalist Joanna Blythman.

This was one of several stories published in the last few years by the likes of NPR, the Associated Press, and the New York Times that draw attention to the negative aspects of the boom in world demand for quinoa. Some, like the Guardian, went to the extreme of guilt-tripping readers against buying it.

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But the idea that worldwide demand for quinoa is causing undue harm where it's produced is an oversimplification at best. At worst, discouraging demand for quinoa could end up hurting producers rather than helping them.

Most of the world's quinoa is grown on the altiplano, a vast, cold, windswept, and barren 14,000-foot Andean plateau spanning parts of Peru and Bolivia. Quinoa is one of the few things that grow there, and its high price means more economic opportunities for the farmers in one of the poorest parts of South America.

An analysis by Emma Banks for the Andean Information Network responds to many of these quinoa questions with a nuance largely absent from the press reports. "The impact of rising food prices is complex and encompasses food security and sovereignty debates," Banks writes. Food security means having enough to eat, while food sovereignty means having a voice in the food system. These are affected differently in different places by increasing prices. But some generalizations can be made. As Banks writes:

Quinoa fetches a guaranteed high price affording farmers economic stability. This economic power has also translated into political power though producers' associations and cooperatives.  Since the 1970's, these organizations have worked toward greater producer control of the market, spurring other political actions such as blockades and protests for greater economic and environmental rights in quinoa-growing regions.

Relevant to the food security discussion, though absent in all of the recent quinoa press coverage, is the fact that, as Banks notes, "Bolivian government nutrition programs have begun to incorporate quinoa into school breakfast and new mothers' subsidies." Similar programs are underway in Peru, New York Times reporter Andrea Zarate told me by phone from Lima.

Edouard Rollet is co-founder of the fair-trade import company Alter Eco, which deals in Bolivian quinoa. His company works with 1,500 families in about 200 Bolivian villages. "I've been going to the altiplano once or twice a year since 2004," Rollet told me by phone. "The farmers are still eating quinoa." He said that over the years he's watched how the extra income from rising prices has allowed the families he works with to diversify their diets dramatically, adding foods like fresh vegetables.  

Of course, not all quinoa growers are fortunate enough to sell their product to fair-trade organizations, and many receive less for their product. Regardless of the price, Rollet says, an average small farmer with 2 or 3 hectares to work will set aside roughly 1/10 of his harvest for personal use, and sell the rest. It's hard to see how rising prices could be considered anything but good for these people.

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