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.
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.
Of greater concern to Rollet is the environmental degradation that could result from more aggressive quinoa cultivation. His and some other quinoa merchants require an organic, rotational grazing system in which llamas are pastured on fallow fields, which helps stabilize the soil—and ensures llama meat on peasant tables. (Reportedly, it goes really well with quinoa.)
This isn't to say there are no growing pains as the worldwide demand for quinoa continues to increase. There have been squabbles over land and water. Farmers have been screwed by middlemen. And the environmental impacts of larger quinoa operations are troubling.
Those hit hardest by the rising price of quinoa are probably quinoa eaters that live in urban areas, since they must pay higher prices for the grain, but don't reap the economic benefits. This is especially true for those who have moved to the city from the countryside, and are used to having access to quinoa but can no longer afford it. The Times article included interviews with several urban dwellers who could no longer afford to eat as much quinoa as they used to.
At the same time, rising quinoa prices are drawing many urban refugees back to the countryside, where it's now possible to make a living from farming. As supply and demand seek equilibrium, there will be shockwaves.
In her analysis, Banks points out that while quinoa farming has for years received state support in Peru, in Bolivia it's largely been a grassroots effort, with producers organizing and collecting the necessary equipment to process seeds and bring back quinoa real, the most commercially viable variety of quinoa. "The quinoa boom greatly benefits farmers in spite of little state support," she wrote.
The UN has declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa, saying it has the potential to advance food security around the globe and prevent malnutrition. In fact, quinoa is so nutritionally complete that NASA has considered it as astronaut food for long space rides. It's a favorite of vegetarians because it's so high in protein, and because it's a rare plant-based food that contains a full complement of amino acids. Interestingly, the Guardian story seemed as much a hit-piece on vegetarians and vegans as on quinoa eaters. ("Britain excels in producing meat and dairy foods ... However, a rummage through the shopping baskets of vegetarians and vegans swiftly clocks up the food miles, a consequence of their higher dependency on products imported from faraway places.")
While attempts to grow quinoa haven't worked out in Britain, locavores in the United States can take heart in the fact that farmers in Oregon and Colorado are figuring out how to grow it. That said, domestic quinoa sells out quickly after every harvest, so for the time being quinoa lovers will be importing most of theirs from the altiplano. And that's a not a bad thing. Wherever it's grown, concerns about buying imported quinoa are overblown.
The Guardian calls it "... a ghastly irony when the Andean peasant's staple grain becomes too expensive at home because it has acquired hero product status among affluent foreigners."
There is, in fact, a ghastly irony here. It's when media stories discourage people from buying imported quinoa in the name of solidarity with the locals. But instead of helping, such reports threaten to kick the legs out from under one of the most promising industries in one of the world's poorest places.
This is a Web-only exclusive of Flash in the Pan, a nationally syndicated weekly food column by Ari LeVaux.
Slate’s coverage of food systems is made possible in part by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.