Should We Really Be Conflicted About Eating Quinoa?

A survey of Bolivian farmers suggests that the controversy over the popular food is more complicated than some would have you believe.
Apr 28, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Remember when we all found out that eating quinoa was the worst possible thing to do? Not in terms of health, of course, because the stuff is basically nutritional magic, but for the farmers who have grown the pseudo cereal in the Andes for thousands of years. By eating so much quinoa in the United States, we were taking away this staple crop from the people who had depended on it for generations, giving them processed wheat and tons of cash in return. It was all Very Bad.

Except it was largely people who were eating quinoa in the United States arguing with people who could potentially be eating quinoa in the United States debating the moral dilemma of eating quinoa in the United States. According to an infographic from the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the quinoa boom can’t be summed up in such black-and-white terms in the Salar de Uyuni, where more quinoa real—the large, white-seeded variety that dominates the international market—is grown than anywhere else in the world.

(The infographic is based on a survey of 100 Bolivian households conducted by Enrico Avitabile, a Ph.D. candidate at Roma Tre University in Rome.)

The survey results support the contention that quinoa farmers are eating less quinoa—but it’s not as though they’re replacing it with bricks of Wonder Bread dusted with Pixy Stix powder. Rather than consuming their crop for breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week, farmers now have the money to buy more fruits and vegetables—healthy foods that are difficult to grow in the harsh climate of the Andes. They’re still eating plenty of another indigenous crop that has taken the world by storm: potatoes. All the 100 families surveyed reported eating potatoes between five and seven days per week in 2012. Roughly 70 percent of respondents said they ate quinoa between two and four times per week in the same year; nearly 20 percent ate the staple between five and seven days per week.

Impact of the Quinoa Boom on Bolivian Family Farmers

Just as the quinoa boom is changing restaurant menus in New York and Los Angeles, so too is it affecting diets in Santa Cruz and La Paz. An increase in urban consumption has bumped up Bolivia’s per capita consumption to 1.11 kilograms per year in 2012 from 0.35 kilograms in 2008.

That’s not to say that the burgeoning international market has meant nothing but good for Bolivian farmers. Increased production has brought about increased erosion, and the white and red (or phisanqalla) varieties that Americans have latched onto dominate production at the expense of biodiversity. In 2011, Bolivia produced more than 80,000 metric tons of quinoa, up from 52,600 in 2000. With more land dedicated to the export crop, llamas, an important source of fertilizer, are being crowded out in the Andes too.

While Americans eating quinoa might not be all good or all bad, it could be better (as is the case with most large-scale agricultural operations). Recommendations like increasing Bolivians’ access to the pseudo cereal through nutrition programs, for example, could help ensure that quinoa continues to support and benefit Bolivians, as it has done for thousands of years, even as the rest of the world enjoys it too.