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Food & Hunger

The Quinoa Boom Helped Peru's Farmers, But There's A Catch


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Rural communities in developing countries are the most vulnerable participants in the global food system, experiencing high rates of food insecurity and disempowerment in trade deals. Global Citizen campaigns on the UN Global Goals ending poverty and eliminating hunger. Join us in taking action on this issue here.

The recent interest in quinoa, considered a superfood, has boosted livelihoods for farming communities in rural Peru. However, as its popularity has soared, international competition now threatens the country’s position as the world’s largest quinoa producer, the BBC reports.

In 2016, Peru and neighboring Bolivia maintained an 80% market share of the world’s quinoa trade. Since then, this percentage has decreased to 72% and may continue to drop as the US, Canada, and Argentina have begun producing quinoa.

Though quinoa has been a culturally significant food for generations among Peruvian farmers living in the Andes, the “pseudo-grain” only recently became popular in the US and globally for its health benefits in recent years. Quinoa has an unusually high protein content compared to other grains, between 14% and 18%, and as a result has been readily embraced by vegetarians and vegans. As a superfood, quinoa also contains amino acids, calcium, magnesium, and anti-inflammatory phytonutrients, which can prevent disease.

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Marketed as "miracle grain of the Andes," demand for the crop has increased dramatically over the last decade and so has its price, which has tripled since 2006, according to Guardian.

The global demand for quinoa is proving to be a double-edged sword for Peruvian farmers.

“My ancestors, my grandparents and parents, have always grown quinoa. I grew up eating quinoa but we didn't sell it,” farmer Rodrigo Cisneros told the BBC.

In the last decade, subsistence farmers living in the Andes have begun selling their crops on the global market. Through these livelihoods, farmers like Cisneros can afford to educate their children and purchase a home. The increase in quinoa farming may also reduce the gender gap in harvesting communities, as women make up nearly 40% of quinoa farmers in Peru.

However, as quinoa’s place in the global economy rises, questions have been raised about its impact on food security in Peru, Bolivia, and other countries where the crop is grown. But whether the positive impact of the growing industry outweighs the negative is disputed.

The Ministry of Agriculture reported that in Peru the price of quinoa rose by 500% between 2005 and 2014, even as production of the crop more than tripled.

In 2013, the Guardian reported that the international demand for quinoa was driving food insecurity by making the crop unaffordable to the communities who have depended on its nutritional value for generations. However, Alexander Kasterine, head of the International Trade Centre’s trade and environment programme, wrote in the Guardian that the high price of quinoa had actually positively impacted the welfare of harvesting communities in Peru in 2016.

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While Peruvian farmers have seen benefits from the growing popularity of quinoa, inequalities in north-south economic exchanges persist. An article from the Conversation explains how trade dynamics, solidified during colonialism, continue to determine who thrives and who suffers in the global food system. Exploitation of farm workers and land is common, as seen in the banana industry. The mounting pressure on subsistence farmers to participate in the export economy has complicated consequences for their food sovereignty — their right to produce healthy, culturally appropriate, and ecologically sound foods, and to define their own agricultural systems.

The international demand for quinoa has also encouraged farmers to reduce the crop diversity in favor of growing uniform crops. Communities that once grew over 60 varieties of quinoa, now grow around 20 to meet consumer demand.

The reduced variety impacts the overall health of the ecosystem and negatively affects the environment, but by re-introducing diverse, traditional varieties, Peruvian farmers could produce more resilient harvests moving forward.