The quinoa [“keen’-wah”] quandary

Is a good thing to eat a bad thing to buy? That’s essentially the quinoa quandary that foodies, advocates of healthier eating, and social activists are facing. There are no easy answers.

Before we get too far into the discussion it might help to know what quinoa is and how to pronounce it. It’s “keen-wha.” It’s a great Scrabble word, but, more importantly, it’s a “superfood”– a grain with very high nutritional value. It’s been around for 3,000 years, when the Incas first cultivated it and treated it as a sacred grain. It’s still mostly grown in the Andes—predominantly in Bolivia.

And there’s the crux of the problem. In the past decade, American and European chefs, as well as health food advocates, have “discovered” quinoa and have been adding it to their cuisine. As a result, quinoa—still a relatively rare commodity, which is not grown in the U.S.—has entered the American culinary vocabulary. And as its popularity grows, the law of supply and demand

Quinoa growing near Lake Titicaca in Bolivia

kicks in, which is raising the price of quinoa, and ultimately making it too expensive for the indigenous people who grow it to actually purchase it and to continue to use it as a dietary staple.

But it’s not just the price of quinoa that’s at issue. As the quinoa boom grows, it is having a major impact on land use in Bolivia. Not being an agri-economist, I’m going to defer, here, to an article by Tanya Kerssen Research Coordinator at Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy:

The rising demand for quinoa is indeed contributing to higher prices, which have tripled in the last six years. But even more troubling than the price impact on Bolivian quinoa consumption, is the impact on land use. Quinoa production is expanding at a break-neck pace in one of the most vulnerable ecosystems on the planet: the fragile soils and native pastures of the Bolivian high plateau (Altiplano). These lands were once carefully managed with fallow (rest) periods of eight years or more. Now many areas are in near-constant production, threatening to destroy the soil’s fertility. The llama herds that have provided manure to fertilize subsistence quinoa plots for millennia have dwindled to make way for large quinoa monocultures. Government programs are doling out tractors, and this mechanization is allowing for the cultivation of larger and larger fields.

…Meanwhile, sand storms are increasingly common in the southern Altiplano, an indicator of the progressive desertification of the region. Desertification—characterized by saline soils, loss of nutrients, erosion and decreasing yields—is triggered by the increased mechanization of farming practices, as well as a disruption of the delicate balance between pastoralism and agriculture. Whereas quinoa was once grown primarily on small hillside terraces, it is now moving into large areas formerly dedicated to llama grazing. In so doing, it is wiping out the high biodiversity of native pastures, shrublands ( tholares) and wetlands ( bofedales)—a diversity necessary for this system’s sustainability and resilience to climate change.

So while no one would argue that Bolivian farmers shouldn’t get a good price for their crop, these trends cannot be ignored—or left up to global market forces. Perhaps most tragic of all is that this boom (and booms are always followed by a bust) is leading the poorest, most vulnerable farmers to degrade their own environment—i.e. the material basis for their very survival and cultural identity—in the name of short-term food security.

What’s the solution? Should we boycott quinoa because of the economic and ecological damage its causing to poor Bolivians? Or should we buy more, while pushing for something parallel to the fair-trade coffee movement? As usual, there’s no easy answer.

Tanya Kerssen concludes her article this way:

So while there is no easy solution to the quinoa quandary—much less a solution driven by northern consumers—the issue has generated an important debate about our global food system. At its core, it’s a debate about which strategies are most effective for creating a just and sustainable food system. And consumption-driven strategies, while part of the toolbox for effecting change, are not the only tools. Only by facing the reality that we can’t consume our way to a more just and sustainable world—and examining the full range of political options and strategies—can we start coming up with real solutions.