Monday, February 11, 2013

Mo money mo problems? Does quinoa’s popularity pose a B.I.G food security risk in South America?

Forget TJ’s butter chicken, Quinoa is the latest food making headlines these days. A number of recent articles documenting its rapid increase in popularity and price are receiving widespread attention due to a controversy regarding the impact of its rise to health-food stardom. Quinoa is nowhere near pushing bananas or chocolate from the top rungs of the moral and ethically debated foods ladder, but recent trends are certainly cause for concern and awareness.

The majority of the world’s quinoa is grown in the altiplano regions of Peru and Bolivia where it has been a staple crop throughout South American history. Often mistaken for a grain, the seed is hailed as a superfood and is internationally recognized for its nutrient density. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization declared 2013 “The International Year of the Quinoa,” praising its high protein, amino acid, and mineral content. The FAO views quinoa as an excellent ally in the fight against global food insecurity. Widespread recognition of its nutrient dense value, in addition to its popularity in vegetarian dishes, has led to a significant increase in global demand for the crop.

The rise in popularity is where the cause for controversy lies. Its simple economics: as the demand for quinoa increases so does the price. In fact, the crop costs almost three times as much as it did five years ago. These recent trends are changing livelihoods in quinoa farming regions, arguably for better or worse. Farmers who left the region in search of financial security might return to farming, while current farmers are receiving more money for their crop, allowing them to better support their families.

In a recent NPR program, Annie Murphy documented the story of Ernesto Choquetopa--a quinoa farmer, who through an organic cooperative, has been able to market his crop to retailers such as Whole Foods and send his daughter to medical school. Proponents of globalization and free trade argue increasing demand and rising prices are beneficial for both farmers and export markets. Doug Sanders of The Globe and Mail cites the benefits of an expanding quinoa market in his response to an article in the Guardian that railed against the “unpalatable truth” and downside of Quinoa’s new popularity.

Food justice advocates have been quick to point out that we cannot examine this trend through rose, or in quinoa’s case—royal red, colored glasses. Higher prices can increase the financial burden in local communities. The staple crop is now less affordable for those who rely on it: non-farmers and urban dwellers in quinoa growing and surrounding regions. As a result, quinoa consumption has declined in the growing regions while malnutrition has increased. There are also environmental concerns. Will quinoa’s popularity lead farmers to forgo sustainable practices such as rotational growing, fertilizing and grazing? Will farmers take-up use of chemicals and synthetics to increase their short term production? Will we witness the displacement of farmers as wealthy landowners and plantations push them off their land to monocrop?

It is a complicated topic; the outcomes of the quinoa market and farmer are difficult to predict. It is also easy to oversimplify. Those who share Sanders’ view cite declining hunger and malnutrition rates throughout the country when countering critics assume correlation between economic growth and poverty relief. However, critics who point out increased rates of hunger in quinoa regions omit consideration of the global trend of rising food costs. One cannot draw conclusions based on recent news articles alone. However, the ethical and environmental concerns raised in these debates bring to light important considerations consumers can take when making their grocery lists. Locavores will be happy to know that quinoa is produced on the small and organic scale here in the US. Dedicated green thumbed foodies can delight in growing a crop of quinoa in their own gardens, but be forewarned---like the quinoa debate, it is not as simple as cutting and drying.


Imron Bhatti said...

Great post. This situation is rife with irony. Populations who've benefitted from the cultivation of this superfood for generations are being priced out by more developed nations' Whole Foods elite (yea... guilty). We're so eager to buy into the mythology of the superfood & a return to primal diets, consciences assuaged by 'Fair Trade' and 'Organic' labels. What will these folks subsist on now? Processed foods of poor nutritional composition churned out by our industrial ag system (and heavily subsidized by the American taxpayer). Benefitting from globalization as consumers brings with it the responsibility of realizing our choices at the supermarket have far-reaching consequences.

Pearl Kan said...

This post also underscores the complex web of global food currents that ripple across our nation-states. It seems that the more and more global our economy becomes -- and with that how our tastes, preferences, and consumptive patterns become embedded and enmeshed in local political economy questions -- it becomes all the more necessary to stay vigilant regarding the marketing of fair trade, organic, and other feel-good food items and what is at stake behind the labeling.

Erin L said...

I really enjoyed reading your post and found it interesting on many levels. In an area like Davis, and in the general DIY and home garden movement across the US it seems like some local quinoa would be more common than it currently is. Perhaps this ties into larger discussions about farm subsidies and preferred crops.
I also think Imron and Pearl's points about fair trade or organic stickers is a good reminder that many of us are culpable of making purchases without doing our homework. I know that I often rely on fair trade stickers or buy eggs that proclaim to be cage free without doing my research into what these labels really mean, how much regulation there is, or if it really is any better for the farmers or animals.

Patricija said...

I posted a story about this from the Guardian on my facebook page in mid-January (post The fact that the post called out vegans in particular go a certain environmental junkie quite enraged. He proclaimed that the article was "incredibly poorly researched" and that he would like to see "data that vegans purchase more quinoa than omnivores." It also caused someone to say "At any rate, this is why I only eat local!" I think it is particularly devastating to those who think they are "doing good." Because in reality, doing good is far more complicated and rarely black and white.

Also, I think so much of our clinging to super foods is such an urban issue. The urban elite playground revolves around quinoa, chia seeds, Kombucha at $4 a bottle, Acai berries, etc. When Obama mentioned Arugula in a speech, working class folks saw it as a red flag that he was simply not in touch with the working class.

The irony is not just that it hurts the countries (and often rural communities within them) that produce the crops, but that is also doesn't benefit the rural communities in our own country.