Quinoa’s Dark Secret

Foreign demand, soil erosion drive up the crop’s price and threaten its future—and the future of those who grow it.

The international price of quinoa—a staple crop in the Andean regions of Peru and Bolivia—has tripled since 2006 because of Western demand, but the increase in price and production has negative long-term effects on the land and farmers. (Photo by: Richard Jung/Getty Images)

Jan 25, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

As health-food fads go, quinoa is so hot right now, to quote the movie Zoolander.

Health food lovers—especially vegans and vegetarians—go nuts for the South American grain-like seed. And with good reason: Quinoa is one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the planet, packed with dietary fiber, vitamins E and B2 and iron, and low in fat. It might be the closest thing we have to a “perfect food.”

Which made a story about quinoa and those who grow it, printed earlier this month in The Guardian, unpalatable for many. Global demand (driven mostly by Western countries) has reached such highs that Bolivia, the largest producer of quinoa, now exports nearly all of the staple crop. The increasingly globalized market has driven the domestic price of the quinoa so high that the people who grow it can't afford to eat it. As a result, Andean farmers and their families face chronic malnutrition.

The situation caused Guardian columnist Joanna Blythman to ask, “Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?” With quinoa prices having tripled since 2006, imported junk food, she writes, is now cheaper for these poor farmers than the crop grown, quite literally, in their backyards. She wondered, would vegans and vegetarians be able to give up the grain that provides them with so much of the protein and vitamins that might otherwise be missing from their diets? PETA shot back, saying worldwide consumption of meat is much more harmful—to animals and the environment—than quinoa consumption is to Bolivian farmers.

But the problems associated with the production and export of quinoa in Bolivia and, to a slightly lesser extent, Peru, are far from insignificant. Foreign demand for Bolivian quinoa will approach 20,000 tons by 2015. But insufficient stockpiles have farmers and the regulating bodies that control the crop using more and more land and making plans to expand the industry so rapidly that it is causing an ecological problem within the countries.

“The farmers see the advantages of the new market opportunities, but simultaneously they are desperate about the negative consequences,” Dr. Sven-Erik Jacobsen, Faculty of Life Sciences at University of Copenhagen, Taastrup, Denmark, tells TakePart. He says that farmers are “Losing their crop due to soil erosion, increased pest problems (mice, birds, llamas, rabbits, insects), poor soil fertility.”

Jacobsen, one of the world’s foremost experts on quinoa and the nations in which it is grown, has conducted research that shows that the acreage of land used to grow quinoa in Bolivia has grown steadily in recent decades in order to produce more of the crop—but that the overall yield has actually dropped. This, he says, causes the sustainability of the crop to be “in severe crisis” amid increasing international demand.

The solution, according to Jacobsen, is to grow the crop elsewhere, “while maintaining a high-value product for export in south Bolivia,” the current center of quinoa production. For example, while the the large, white-seeded quinoa variety—called quinoa Real—can only be grown in south Bolivia, other varies of quinoa should be grown in north Bolivia, Peru and other Andean countries, as well similarly moutainous regions around the world, including the African highlands, the Himalayas, and even Europe. The future of the crop, he adds, may depend on diversifying the quinoa market with new varieties grown in a number of different locales.

Until then, Western consumers have a choice on their hands: Scale back on consumption, hoping it decreases the global demand, or learn to live with the realities of how their quinoa obsession affects the health and land in two of South America’s poorest nations.

Will this affect your consumption of quinoa?