Quinoa, which until recently was eaten mainly by poor rural communities in Bolivia, seems to be everywhere these days. From quinoa salads to a gourmet backpacking dinner, we’ve featured a fair few quinoa recipes ourselves.

This is not without good reason.

Quinoa as superfood

Rich in protein, fiber, and essential amino acids, quinoa packs a powerful nutritional punch. But quinoa’s new found status as an international “superfood” has led some people to question the very nature of our global food system.

Quinoa farmerRising prices blamed for food insecurity

In a much talked about and quoted blog post, Joanna Blythman of the Guardian questioned whether vegans and whole foods enthusiasts were depriving the Bolivian poor of a grain they once relied on for survival:

“The appetite of countries such as ours for this grain has pushed up prices to such an extent that poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom it was once a nourishing staple food, can no longer afford to eat it. Imported junk food is cheaper. In Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken.”

Inevitably, Blythman’s piece elicited a passionate and derisive response from free market enthusiasts like Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail, who argued that the economic boost from quinoa exports was lifting the rural poor out of poverty.

Responsible development of the market

When this controversy first kicked off, I argued over at TreeHugger that the framing of the debate as quinoa good/quinoa bad was largely missing the point:

“Just as the rehabilitation of derelict inner-city properties brings with it both the problems of gentrification and the promise of urban renewal, so too the idea of a global food trade raises the potential for both economic empowerment and further exploitation of marginalized communities.”

That seems to be a position that’s echoed by veterans of the quinoa trade in Bolivia.

A false choice

On a recent conference call, Edouard Rollet, co-founder and president of Alter Eco — one of the companies credited with pioneering the fair trade and organic quinoa markets — suggested that it is not a question of whether or not to develop the quinoa market, but rather how it is done:

“Giving the poorest of the poor in Latin America — farmers that grow quinoa — access to income or "protecting" this region from globalization, is a false choice. It's up to everyone involved, especially companies, to determine if they will operate in a way that fairly benefits those at quinoa's origin — or if they will operate business as usual.”

Alter Eco began working with Bolivian small scale quinoa farmers in 2005, says Rollet, partnering with the National Association of Quinoa Producers (ANAPQUI). This was at a time when there was no Fair Trade standards for quinoa and they had to develop their own. Since then, Alter Eco has seen huge changes in the conditions of these quinoa growing communities.

Food insecurity a complex, global issue

Pablo Laguna, an anthropologist specializing in development issues, points to a tripling of farmer incomes since 1995, and suggests that concerns over food security resulting from quinoa production have been much exaggerated:

“There’s really no significant data to support the idea that the quinoa boom has led to food security issues. We’re actually seeing many farmers in the region growing as much quinoa as they ever did for their own consumption. There has been a shift toward processed foods among some elements of the population, and food prices are clearly a problem. But these problems are global problems that have been well documented elsewhere too. They can’t just be attributed to quinoa.”

Quinoa farming

Photo: Alter Eco

Farming communities empowered by boom

In addition to raised household incomes - which have resulted partially from spin off industries and the ability that quinoa income has provided for investing in diversified income streams - Laguna also points to an increase in Government investment and a raised political profile for these once marginalized communities:

“As the industry has grown, the government has invested in local infrastructure to support the community – from access to electricity, to better roads, schools and health. That’s happened because quinoa growers have gained legitimacy in the eyes of the government and are able to negotiate rural development policies.”

The threat of unfettered growth

While they are bullish about the benefits that quinoa has brought to the Altiplano region, Alter Eco and their farming partners still agree with critics of the boom that market forces must be kept in check if these communities are going to continue to thrive.

With rising prices comes increased foreign investment, and Rollet suggests that many of the newcomers to the market are not pursuing the same aggressive social and environmental policies that Alter Eco has pioneered:

“How quinoa is sourced is critical to ensuring the sustainability of the crop and that farmers continue to receive the benefits of a flourishing quinoa market. We’re seeing some private companies taking shortcuts with product quality, water recycling and employee treatment. Others have been going around ANAPQUI, offering farmers a higher direct-­to-­farmer price, which leaves us subsidizing the companies who don’t invest into the system. We have to compete with them but we’re not on a level playing field.”

Quinoa crop

Photo: Alter Eco

Managing the boom

When asked how the quinoa boom can be best managed for the benefit of the farmers themselves, Rollet offers a very specific laundry list of recommendations. This includes encouraging beneficial partnerships between companies like Alter Eco and farming cooperatives like ANAPQUI; promoting increased government investment and support for the region’s farmers; and designating quinoa “real” , or royal quinoa, as a regionally specific product, like champagne or Pargmigiano-Reggiano:

“Quinoa Real is a true product of terroir. It’s larger, it’s fluffier, and it’s less bitter than other quinoas. It thrives in the harsh conditions of the Altiplano region. It might be able to be grown elsewhere, but the results are never the same. Protecting this term for the indiginous farmers whose ancestors have grown it for centuries would give them a powerful voice in the international marketplace.”

Photo: Alter Eco

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