When I was first introduced to quinoa, I thought it was one of those words purely designed to catch me out and showcase my ignorance. ‘What is this kin-oh-ah stuff?’ I’d say to myself whenever it popped up on menus or supermarket shelves. Eventually, I dared to utter the word out loud. A more worldly person frowned and muttered, ‘It’s keen-wah.’
Since then, I have grown to appreciate this nutrient-rich grain. Originating in the high-altitude regions of Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia, it’s become a staple for health conscious eaters from LA to London. In March this year, the Harvard School of Public Health published a study that showed eating a bowl of quinoa a day could reduce the risk of premature death by 17%. With its potentially life-saving qualities, it’s no surprise that Western markets have embraced this high protein, low calorie and versatile product with abandon.
So far, so good
But obsessions can be dangerous, and there’s a disparity between the experience of those who consume quinoa in wealthy countries, and those who produce it in its native environment. According to a 2012 UN report on Food Insecurity in the World, 24% of Bolivia’s population faces malnutrition. And if quinoa is so nutritious, why is Bolivia’s quinoa-growing region the most malnourished in the country?
The first answer is that it’s always been pretty hard to grow anything else there. Traditionally cultivated in the cold, dry plains of the Andes, quinoa is particularly well-suited to harsh environments with high risk of drought, heavy winds and frost - conditions that many other crops would not be able to withstand.
However, the global chain of supply and demand has made these already poor soil conditions even worse. Before tractors were introduced to Bolivia by the USA in the seventies, quinoa was grown on slopes near flat pastures where llamas grazed. Farmers were able to use manure from these local animals to fertilise the soil. Although tractors made the work less labour intensive and in turn boosted productivity, they could only work on flat ground. Not ideal for plants that grow on the world’s longest continental mountain range. Quinoa took priority and so farming the crop moved to the flatter grounds, spelling goodbye to the large llama populations that helped keep the soil healthy.
A Bolivian quinoa farmer. He's much better at growing quinoa than he is at hide and seek.
Still, technological advance isn’t all bad. When hand-based processing techniques for quinoa were replaced with industrial ones in the 1980s, the volume of quinoa that could be produced rocketed, and so did the price paid to Bolivian farmers. Before 2000, the farmers earned around $500 per metric ton. By 2008, this had surged to $800 in 2008 and $1,300 in 2010.
More quinoa for us and a higher income for Bolivian farmers sounds like a decent balance, right? Unfortunately, the dark side of quinoa’s story shows that the prospect of “mo’ money,’ sometimes means “mo’ problems.”
Driven by the potential revenue from soaring demand, Bolivian farmers began selling off more llamas - the very thing they needed to fertilise the soil - in order to create more farmland for quinoa. This had two consequences. The price for manure increased and the speed of soil degradation accelerated.
Most sadly of all, our demand for quinoa has pushed up the prices of the grain so much that many farmers now find it more worthwhile to sell off their quinoa crops and buy cheaper, less nutritious, processed foods to eat. They're sacrificing their families' health in order to more effectively escape poverty. That may work in the short term, but it's a flawed idea in the long run.
Is it time to go against the grain and stop buying quinoa?
The solution is not as easy as putting the ‘no’ back in quinoa. The loss of income that would result is likely to put a further strain on Bolivian farmers who make their living from the popularity of the crop. The Western quinoa boom is certainly implicated in the problem, but it is not the single direct cause. So rather than turning the clock back, we need to focus on more than just producing as much quinoa as possible - the definition of “producing quinoa right” needs to include environmental sustainability, a balanced diet for the locals, and economic growth for the farmers who see quinoa farming as their pathway out of poverty.
Thankfully, the process has already started. The Bolivian government has taken steps to tackle the problem of malnutrition by providing quinoa breakfasts to schoolchildren and food subsidies for new mothers. Companies like Alter Eco work to secure a fair and sustainable deal for quinoa farmers, while organisations like ANAPQUI, a cooperative of fair trade quinoa farmers based in Bolivia, ensure that the people who grow quinoa have real agency in the international marketplace.
Things are looking up, but I now realise that there’s more of a story in my packet of quinoa than I thought. Quinoa is more than a difficult word - its story reveals some tricky dilemmas that are being faced by food producers as they try to balance their local needs with the opportunities that are available in this new, globalised world.