Global rise in quinoa demand prices out growers, complicates mass consumption

Quinoa: a pseudo-grain indigenous to the Andes and prized for its exceptional nutritional benefits. Indeed, quinoa supplies all ten essential amino acids as well as an ample amount of protein—qualities that in part prompted a 1993 NASA technical paper to remark that “while no single food can supply all the essential life-sustaining nutrients, quinoa comes as close as any other in the plant or animal kingdom.” Twenty years later, the UN declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa, stating that the hugely nourishing crop harbors the potential to advance global food security and prevent malnutrition among the 850 million people currently starving worldwide.

However, increasing global demand for quinoa stems not only from a philanthropic obligation to feed the hungry, but from affluent nations’ infatuation with the trendy new darling grain of the health-food community. A number of articles recently published in the UK magazine The Guardian propose that escalating quinoa prices driven by growing demand—quinoa has tripled in price since 2006 to $3,115 per ton—have hindered its consumption among the Andean farmers who have long supplemented their meager diets with the highly nutritious plant. Because of quinoa’s newly high price, selling the crop for greater amounts of cheaper, less nutrient-dense foods such as rice has proven more profitable for the farmers than consuming quinoa themselves. Furthermore, farmers have come to regard quinoa as an outdated “grandma grain,” shunning it in favor of inexpensive Westernized diet staples.

A more optimistic view of quinoa’s mounting price posits that the global trend introduces more economic opportunities for farmers in one of South America’s most impoverished localities—Guardian contributor Dan Collyns even refers to quinoa as “a lifeline for the people of Bolivia’s Oruro and Potosi regions.” Not without its drawbacks, though, this particular outlook argues that, rather than Andean farmers, poor South Americans living in urban areas incur the greatest amount of misfortune from increased quinoa prices, since they receive none of the economic benefits gained by farmers.

In an attempt to ameliorate this issue, the Peruvian and Bolivian governments have implemented measures to ensure that non-wealthy Andeans aren’t priced out of the growing market for the nutrient-dense grain; pregnant and nursing women living in Bolivia, for example, now receive quinoa as a component of their government-issued food supply packets, while children in Peruvian public schools munch on quinoa for breakfast. A budding movement to expand quinoa production beyond the Andean region has already experienced success in the Colorado Rockies as well as in several countries in Europe and Asia; this added supply could lower the crop’s price to a level that is still profitable to Andean farmers but affordable to regional consumers.

From an environmental standpoint, the increasing global demand for quinoa has prompted a concerning scramble among farmers to seize more land for efficiency-driven, rather than sustainable, cultivation, which exerts pressure on soil fertility as quinoa threatens to become grown within a system of monoculture.

So should we, the socially conscious students of Vassar, continue to consume the (rather unsatisfactorily prepared) quinoa offered at the Deece? At whatever conclusion you personally arrive from the information I’ve offered, I hope that the intricacies of and issues surrounding the current global quinoa market prompt you to begin analyzing your food choices at a deeper, more ethically minded level than that simply of taste, pleasure, and convenience. Why not use the quinoa debate as a jumping-off point from which to discover more about precisely how the food on your plate ended up there? Indeed, while opting to abstain from eating quinoa may or may not improve the livelihoods of Andean farmers, there exist a handful of dietary choices that will concretely and profoundly decrease levels of world hunger and environmental degradation.

Consider that 760 million tons of the world’s grain provides feed for livestock, while 20 times less than that amount has been projected to eliminate the most extreme cases of world hunger today. Additionally, the world’s cattle alone consume enough food to sustain 9 billion people—the human population expected by 2050.

Regarding the environmental impacts of animal agriculture, a study published last October by the European Commission found that switching to a vegetarian diet results in twice the carbon emissions savings of switching to an electric car. By opting not to support animal agribusiness, you can rest assured that the decisions you make thrice daily as to what to eat will contribute to a growing movement toward a more equitable, just, and environmentally friendly society. Or you could gaze upon the supermarket shelves in perplexed contemplation of which brand claims to ethically source their quinoa.

 

—Alessandra Seiter ‘16 is a prospective English major.

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