You might have seen some news reports reflecting on a controversy about the beloved Andean quinoa, the superfood of the gods that is a wonder to vegetarians because it is a complete protein. The Huffington Post had a provocative and largely mistitled post “Is Fair Trade Quinoa A Real Thing, Or Has The Superfood’s Popularity Hurt Those Who Grow It?”
Actually, if you read the piece, it is pretty clear that rising prices may be tough for some quinoa consumers but is a boon to producers. But, the challenge may be that production cannot expand to keep pace with demand, which may be a mixed bag for growers, higher prices for the quinoa that is sold but some money on the table for unmet demand (though too much production might mean cheap prices for consumers and low incomes growers). It’s unclear what the ethical sweet spot is for fair trade quinoa but here is news from recent stories about the quinoa market and what it means for producers.
Quantity: A Shortage of Quinoa
The Washington Post had a great article explaining why quinoa imports have exploded over the last few years but are limited by the difficulty in growing it:
In 2012, the U.S. accounted for a negligible amount of the 200 million pounds produced worldwide, with more than 90 percent coming from Bolivia and Peru.
Demand started to ramp up in 2007, when Customs data show that the U.S. imported 7.3 million pounds of quinoa. Costco, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods began carrying the seed soon after, and the U.S. bought 57.6 million pounds in 2012, with 2013 imports projected at 68 million pounds. And yet, prices are skyrocketing; they tripled between 2006 and 2011, and now hover between $4.50 and $8 per pound on the shelf.
Despite the increase in demand, production is constrained because quinoa is hard to grow outside the Andes, and indeed, from my experience as a volunteer, it can be hard to grow in the Andes, subject to the elements, flood, drought, hail, animal damage. Here, the Post noted these problems
The Andean smallholders are trying to keep up with the demand. They’ve put more and more land into quinoa in recent years; Bolivia had 400 square miles under cultivation last year, up from 240 in 2009. The arid, cool land that quinoa needs was plentiful, since little else could grow there. And thus far, that trait has made it difficult to grow elsewhere.
It also hasn’t received the kind of investment needed to expand production:
You don’t need a patent to grow a crop, of course. But the switching cost is extremely high, says Cynthia Harriman of the Whole Grains Council. “Can you get a loan from your bank, when the loan officer knows nothing about quinoa? Will he or she say, ‘stick to soybeans or corn?’” It even requires different kinds of transportation equipment. “If you grow quinoa up in the high Rockies, where are the rail cars that can haul away your crop? Or the roads suitable for large trucks?”
“This is something where it would truly have to come from the demand side–no one wants to get into this and get stuck with all this excess inventory,” says Marc Bellemare, an agricultural economist at Duke University. And how do you determine how much demand is enough, or whether a fad has staying power?
Is Higher Western Demand for Quinoa Bad for Andean People? No.
While higher prices for quinoa might be problematic for some urban consumers, higher prices means more income for most Andean farmers concludes a story from NPR, drawing mostly on Bolivia where most quinoa comes from.
“The farmers who have been eating quinoa traditionally are still eating quinoa,” he told me. And since their incomes are up, “they’re able to now afford [foods such as] tomatoes and salads and veggies, and foods that they weren’t able to afford before,” Rollet says.
It is “very good news for small, indigenous farmers,” says Pablo Laguna, an anthropologist who has studied quinoa’s influence on local communities in Bolivia. Quinoa’s popularity, he says, is bringing more income to the southern highlands, traditionally one of the poorest regions in Bolivia. Laguna has also worked as a consultant to Alter Eco.
It’s not clear that city dwellers even eat all that much quinoa.
These prices do likely put quinoa out of reach for poorer people. But Laguna notes that while quinoa has been a staple for rural Bolivians, it isn’t one for city folks.