If I were sent to a desert island with one type of food only to sustain me, I would choose quinoa. Like many people since quinoa began gaining visibility, I became a convert with my first spoonful. I love the satisfying pop of the tiny translucent beads in my mouth. I love the taste, so unique and yet so versatile as to provide the perfect stand-in for pasta, bread, rice, potatoes–you name it. And of course, I love the nutritious goodness of this gluten-free seed–its balance of essential amino-acids equals that of meat, its protein content surpasses any grain’s, to name but a few. Pregnant, I laughed when I realized that quinoa was the only food whose very evocation would nauseate me. Thankfully, I was able to make my peace with it as soon as breastfeeding became my new priority in life. And I gratefully incorporated it back in my diet several times a week.
That was over three months ago. Since then, I haven’t been able to stop pondering over all sorts of issues surrounding this staple food of mine, the bulk of which is imported from the high desert plateau (Altiplano) of Bolivia. Am I just a hypocrite for evangelizing the virtues of buying local while relying heavily on a food that is anything but local? A food whose exports have multiplied tenfold between 2000 and 2009, and whose price tripled over the last decade? A food that has become so expensive, in fact, that the people who’ve been living off it for millennia can barely afford it anymore, and must replace it with cheap commodities like noodles–or so I hear? Should I search for sources closer to home, and, barring local production, should I banish my favorite food from my table?
I decided to do some research. As it turns out, those questions have no straightforward answers.
My first surprise was to discover that the success of quinoa on the American, European and even Japanese markets has done almost nothing to impact production outside of the crop’s native grounds, the Andean highlands where it is grown the same way it was over 3,000 years ago.
Quinoa is a hardy, drought- and frost-resistant plant that thrives at high altitude–between 7,000 and 13,000 feet. It prefers sandy soils and short daylight cycles. It also adapts to its environment, if its some 1,800 known strains are any indication. Yet, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador still account for 97 percent of global production. Despite decades of research and trial in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and in Minnesota, at the impetus of American market pioneer Quinoa Corporation, quinoa still escapes the best efforts of agronomists and dedicated farmers to reach commercial scale. Today, White Mountain Farm in San Luis Valley, Colorado, is the only American grower to sell quinoa–in “very limited supply” as its site indicates. Farmers in the Canadian prairie of Saskatchewan seem to have had somewhat better luck. They’ve been selling their crops through the Northern Quinoa Corporation since 1995. That’s for the “local” supply.
Back in the native lands of quinoa, the situation is complex and multifaceted. Unlike palm oil or coffee, quinoa was a cultural heritage as well as a key to domestic public health and food security long before it became a cash crop. There’s no denying that the rich countries’ newfound love for the Incas’ favorite food (“Mother Grain”) has been a boon to quinoa growers. These are the poor of the poor, inhabiting remote Andean arid plateaus where they somewhat escaped centuries of agricultural colonization and disruption in the wake of the Spanish conquest. The Spaniards were quick to dismantle the Incas’ food system by turning their sacred crop into animal feed, while developing a European style of agriculture in lower altitude valleys based on imported livestock and wheat. In places, the Europeans were so successful in their endeavor that the skills required to grow quinoa were lost. Shunned by the economic and social elites as an archaic peasant food, quinoa survived as a subsistence crop in inhospitable environments where no cattle nor wheat would prosper. For centuries, it was cultivated the ancient way by communities who could barely scrape a living on the edge of the salt flats that stretch their sterile canvas between mountain peaks. Now, for the first time ever, those communities can afford to send some of their children to college. Elsewhere, other groups are rediscovering the ancient art of growing quinoa, occasionally with the help of Western organizations and individuals, supplementing their diet with this super-food while reaping the bounties of the expanding global market.
Interestingly enough, quinoa growers seem to be relatively protected from business predators, Peruvian smugglers notwithstanding. “Quinoa fetches a guaranteed high price affording farmers economic stability. This economic power has also translated into political power though producers’ associations and cooperatives,” writes Emma Banks, of The Andean Information Network. “Since the 1970s, these organizations have worked toward greater producer control of the market, spurring other political actions such as blockades and protests for greater economic and environmental rights in quinoa-growing regions.” (my emphasis) It’s also worth noting that, given its ecological profile, quinoa does not lend itself to large-scale intensive farming, remaining the exclusive prerogative of small farmers so far. In that context, distributors have developed trusted relationships with their suppliers, building their business on a model that aims to revitalize and sustain local communities. American company Inca Organics has done so in Ecuador. French fair-trade importer Alter Eco, among others, has been working with growers in Bolivia. It remains to be seen whether their values will be upheld as the growth of the market lures big players in the game.
Now, what about reports that Bolivians can’t afford quinoa anymore because of the price inflation caused by the explosion in global demand? There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that makes me cringe. I, the wealthy consumer in the North, haven’t failed to notice that the price of quinoa more than doubled since I started buying it over five years ago. I haven’t reduced my consumption however. Now, should I quit, and encourage everyone I know to do the same so as to alleviate the pressure on demand, hence on price, that affects consumers in the countries of production?
Many thanks to Emma Banks of The Andean Information Network for helping me put things in perspective. “The impact of rising food prices is complex and encompasses food security and sovereignty debates. Until a comprehensive study provides insight into rising quinoa prices, it is difficult to make strong affirmations. The impact of quinoa production and export must be understood both within the framework of global food security issues and specific local contexts,” she writes.
Let’s bear in mind that quinoa stopped being a staple food for many people in the Andes region a long time ago. As mentioned earlier this year in an article in The New York Times, many lesser-quality foods associated with affluent societies often trump the ancient grain. “It has to do with food culture, because if you give the kids toasted quinoa flour, they don’t want it; they want white bread. If you give them boiled water, sugar and quinoa flour mixed into a drink, they prefer Coca-Cola,” says Bolivian Vice Minister of Rural Development and Agriculture. In other words, poor nutrition didn’t start with the inflation of quinoa prices.
This being said, many families who did rely on quinoa as their staple food have had to cut back. The good news is that the Bolivian government has acknowledged this year that quinoa has an important role to play with regards to food security and public health–as it did for the Incas. President Evo Morales said that he plans to make more than $10 million in loans available to organic quinoa producers for domestic consumption. Meanwhile, health officials have started incorporating the plant into various nutrition programs, including school lunches as well as foods packets for thousands of pregnant and nursing women.
Now, what should conscientious wealthy consumers in the North do? Their consumption has pulled prices upwards, but that is not the only variable in a global system that puts an ancestral, healthy food out of reach of its people. The price of all foods has gone up in the past few years. On top of that, quinoa has many strikes against it compared with the commodities it competes with, since it does not originate from the big industrial process that brings us wheat and corn. These grains are produced on the cheap thanks to economies of scale, chemical inputs and government subsidies. Quinoa, on the other hand, is produced by small farmers who still use traditional methods. Moreover, quinoa production doesn’t end at harvest, since the saponin-covered seeds require the painstaking process of multiple washings. Limited scale and intense labor necessarily imply higher cost. Clearly, quinoa is ill-designed for today’s global market. Lest its cultivation were to become industrialized at a huge social and environmental cost–fortunately, that seems unlikely.
At any rate, I’d rather imagine a world where farmers in the Andes are handsomely compensated for meeting growing domestic demand, thus contributing to public health and food security in their region; and where everybody else, Canada-style, strives to develop specific strains that thrive on their land so as to meet local demand. Grown sustainably, quinoa will still fetch what we consider to be a high price. Oh, but of course, these subsidies to industrially-produced crops have to stop.
Meanwhile, I will be interested to see how Evo Morales and his peers handle the seeming imbalance in quinoa supply and demand, and whether they reallocate farming subsidies accordingly. As long as they encourage exports that are produced sustainably, and that directly benefit growers, I may still allow myself to be tempted. Yet let me first sample what White Mountain Farm and Norquin have to offer.