While vegetarians and health fanatics in Western countries are promoting the intake of the superfood quinoa because of its high nutritional values, local Andean people in Bolivia and Peru can no longer afford to eat this staple food of theirs because of surging food prices (Blythman, 2013). Superfood are food items that are not only very nutritious, but which also claim to have exceptional health benefits. Nowadays, they are fashionable food like Golgi berries, chia seed, kale and etc. Being one of the world’s most popular health foods, quinoa (keen-wa) is well-known for its high nutritional values: it is gluten free, high protein, fibre and many other vitamins and minerals, and is considered to be one of the few food items that contain all nine essential amino acids (Gunnars, 2018). Although it is usually prepared like a grain, Quinoa is actually a pseudo-cereal that is related to the spinach, chard and beet family (Thomson, 2017).

In 2013, United Nations declared the year to be the International Year of Quinoa, demonstrating how this small, nutritious grain became a global favourite (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, 2013). Nonetheless, behind all the buzz about this tiny seed hides a history of more than 7000 years (Winkel et al., 2016). A look at the history of quinoa will give us a perspective on how this crop come about, and how the growing demand for this healthy food affects the countries they are grown.

Quinoa is a tiny, yet nutritious seed that is one of the most popular healthy foods worldwide (Gunnars, 2018).

Quinoa is originally from South America, and has remained the staple food for indigenous people of the Andean region over centuries because of its fantastic adaptive qualities and high nutritional values (Ruiz et al., 2014). Currently, the main producers of quinoa in the world are Bolivia and Peru, together producing more than 80% of quinoa in the world, followed by Ecuador, USA and China (Bazile et al., 2016). Quinoa has always been considered as a neglected crop – its cultivation was mainly for domestic consumption and was considered as a “peasants’ food with no commercial value (Chelleri et al., 2015). However, since the 1970s, quinoa’s high nutritional values caught the interest of American and European consumers as an exotic and healthy superfood (Chelleri et al., 2015). The ‘discovery’ of the crop resulted in a rise in global demand for the crop, and this led to a rapid increase in its market price (Ruiz et al., 2014). The price of quinoa has dramatically increased by 600% from 2000 to 2008 alone, as shown in figure 1.

Figure 1. Quinoa production and price (2001-08) (Ofstehage, 2012).

The rise in quinoa’s market price led to an increase in the production of the crop as farmers saw it as an economic opportunity. Yet, quinoa producing countries like Bolivia still remained to be one of the poorest and most food insecure countries in South America (Jacobsen, 2011; Hall, 2016). In fact, the national consumption of quinoa in Bolivia actually fell by 4% from 2006 to 2011 despite a rise in production (Hall, 2016). With a population of 9.1 million, Bolivia is considered as the poorest country in the Andean region. Almost 80% of the rural population in the country live below the poverty line (Jacobsen, 2011). This paradox points to an important aspect of quinoa production chain that needs to be discussed.

Under the rising global demand for quinoa, Bolivian farmers face pressures from different sides: increasing their production to accommodate for a growing international market while safeguarding traditional knowledge, preserving biodiversity, meeting household needs and making a profit. On one hand, farmers hope to benefit from the growing quinoa trade, but on the other hand, they are made vulnerable by this rising trend in different ways.

A Bolivian farmer harvesting organic quinoa in his fields in Puerto Perez, Bolivia (Cherfas, 2016).

Referring to figure 1, the price for quinoa has risen dramatically, particularly between 2006 to 2008, while the production of quinoa has not increased as much as its price. The high price of quinoa encouraged farmers to sell their better-quality quinoa and retain the less nutritious ones for the domestic market. In some cases, farmers would even sell most of their valuable quinoa for self-consumption, and turn to cheaper and less nutritious alternatives (Ofstehage, 2012). The increasing price of quinoa also made it difficult for local people to purchase the staple food that they had always consumed, forcing them to abandon quinoa for other staples such as rice and pasta. Although the rise in global demand for quinoa brings income to certain segment of the farm economy, it has affected the food security situation of the Bolivian population.

Figure 2. Domestic consumption, production, and export of quinoa in Bolivia (1995-2010) (Jacobsen, 2011).

According to figure 2, while the export of quinoa has increased from around 1998 to 2009, domestic consumption has decreased. The major foods that contribute to the daily caloric intake of Bolivians have been shifting from quinoa to bread and pasta (Borda, 2013). The boom of quinoa can be seen as a saving grace for farmers as they can sell them at a higher price, but at the cost of local people’s accessibility to the staple that has been part of their food culture for centuries.

Furthermore, increasing demand for quinoa and globalization is changing land use and increasing the crop’s genetic homogeneity (Ruiz et al., 2014; Chelleri et al., 2015). Since quinoa real is the most commonly purchased and consumed type of quinoa, many farmers turn to mono-cropping to gain more profit (Chelleri et al., 2015). The change in land use threatens the genetic diversity of quinoa and its associated human culture (Bazile et al., 2016). The rapid expansion of quinoa production and entry of new producers is threatening both the ecological sustainability and the social integrity of local communities. The rise of quinoa production has also led to a shift from traditional small-scale manual cropping to large-scale mechanised cropping methods (Winkel et al., 2016). The transition from an integrated farming systems to a more mechanised system with reduced biodiversity and increased use of tillage has not only changed the landscape, but also put pressure on the quality of soil (Ofstehage, 2012). With the worldwide demand for quinoa increasing rapidly, we should be more aware of its consequences and not turn a blind eye on the social and environmental justice issues it raises.

 

References:

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