The Quinoa Boom Is a Lesson in the Global Economy

PHOTO: In this Feb. 16, 2013 photo, quinoa plants grow in a farmers field in Patamanta, Bolivia.

How are a vegan in Brooklyn, a journalist in Britain, an indigenous farmer in the Bolivian highlands and a migrant worker in Lima connected? One word: Quinoa. The popularity of this Andean "super food," which is pronounced keen-wa, has skyrocketed. The speed of its uptake, however, has not been without problems, highlighting the interconnections that exist in a global economy.

Quinoa is cultivated by farmers in the Andean highlands – Bolivia and Peru are top producers – and was first domesticated by the Incas around 3,000 years ago. The grain-like seed is jam-packed with proteins, vitamins and minerals and is gluten- and cholesterol-free. For these reasons, quinoa has become extremely popular among both health conscious consumers, especially vegans, and organizations like the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), which is hoping it can help wipe out global malnutrition. The quinoa craze got another nice notch in its belt about a week ago when the UN made 2013 the "International Year of Quinoa."

It sounds pretty great until we get to the quinoa boom's unintended negative consequences.

An anti-quinoa op-ed by a British journalist in The Guardian, for instance, called the quinoa trade "yet another troubling example of a damaging north-south exchange, with well-intentioned health and ethics-led consumers here unwittingly driving poverty there."

While most of this article is "rubbish", as they say across the pond, the controversy raises an important issue about global food chains: These days, a decision we make in one country can have effects halfway across the world.

The issues highlighted by the quinoa-haters focus on two areas. The first argument goes that quinoa is now so expensive — its price has tripled since 2006 thanks to increasing demand from foreigners — that locals can no longer afford the healthy staple and are turning to imported junk foods instead. This is actually the rubbish part. A Bolivian agronomist told The Guardian in a different article that quinoa growers have actually "westernized their diets because they have more profits and more income. Ten years ago they had only an Andean diet in front of them. They had no choice. But now they do and they want rice, noodles, candies, Coke, they want everything!" he said.

According to the UN and other experts, while its price has risen, quinoa sold in traditional markets in rural areas is still accessible. Quinoa eaters in cities like Lima do face higher prices and don't see any of the benefits of the boom in foreign demand. But both the Peruvian and Bolivian governments are working to incorporate quinoa into public programs like school breakfasts.

The second argument is that the increased demand is causing a rapid expansion of quinoa production, which is damaging the environment. Recently, the Bolivian government admonished quinoa farmers for planting in areas where llamas once grazed — apparently llama manure is a key part of quinoa fertilization — and for depleting soils by not properly rotating crops. The lack of llama manure in larger farms is leading to an increase in chemical fertilizers, and poor crop management is causing desertification in some areas. These are the real downsides of the quinoa boom, though it is worth noting that foods we eat more commonly, like pork and beef, have a much greater impact on the environment (and much less benefit for Andean farmers).

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