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Is your quinoa consumption wreaking havoc in the Andes?
This pseudo-cereal superfood stirs up debate – packed with nutrition and the potential to improve global food security – quinoa is shrouded in humanitarian and environmental issues.
But you might not need to cut it out of your diet just yet.
To help you wade through quinoa’s benefits and controversy, we’ll take an honest, in-depth look at the facts.
Table of Contents
A Seed Steeped in History
Dating back to 5000 ~ 3000 BC, quinoa was a sacred food in Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador among the Incan civilization. During Spanish colonization, it was deemed ‘non-Christian’ because of its use in indigenous religious ritual and was replaced by other grains.
Yet quinoa farming tradition continued outside of Spanish-populated colonies. With time, quinoa became associated with the poorest segments of society and was not widely consumed because of this association.
In the ’90s, the Peruvian government began food assistance programs to reduce poverty. Quinoa was one of the grains that the government purchased from small farmers as part of this program.
More farmers began to expand their crop size and produce quinoa for government purchase when the ‘quinoa boom’ hit in 2009.
The Quinoa Boom
Quinoa exploded in popularity with medium-upper class health fanatics, foodies and vegans in the Global North from 2008 to 2014.
The export volume of quinoa in Peru grew approximately 18 times and the price rose 600% in what was dubbed ‘the quinoa boom’.
Peru became “the world’s largest producer and exporter of quinoa, accounting for about 60% of the total production” with Bolivia producing 20%.
The Quinoa Bust
The media began to throw up humanitarian and environmental red flags.
They claimed that the high quinoa prices, brought on by the boom, made it impossible for Andean farmers to afford it. This meant modest farm families who once enjoyed a vitamin and mineral-rich superfood would now suffer from food insecurity.
There were rumors of land conflicts and loss of biodiversity as farmers turned to monocropping and abandoned traditional, sustainable farming practices to keep up with increased demand.
Well-intentioned consumers concerned for Andean people and the environment slowed or stopped their quinoa consumption, dropping farmers’ sale prices from $4 per pound back to $0.60.
Did the media overreact and jerk the profit rug out from under farmers? Yes and no.
Media Mistake #1
The claims being made were based on studies from Bolivia, not Peru, even though Peru is responsible for roughly 60% of global quinoa production and exportation.
Media Mistake #2
Agricultural economist, Marc Bellemare, and economist, Seth Gitter, used ENAHO, a government-funded “national survey of about 22,000 randomly selected Peruvians”, to study their food habits.
This survey covers what Peruvians are growing, eating, and spending on.
The economists found that those who grew quinoa, those who simply ate it, and those who neither grew nor ate it “all showed a clear rise in their welfare” and living standards at the height of the boom.
Previously impoverished farmers had raised their welfare by as high as 46% thanks to the boom. Financially, these marginalized people were better than ever.
Read Bellemare and Gitter’s results.
Media Mistake #3
Agricultural economist Andrew Stevens, also studied the ENAHO survey and found that quinoa is simply one in 161 foods that make up many Peruvians’ diets.
He discovered quinoa is not a staple grain in Peru and represents less than 4% of a family’s budget. Modern families, he found, prefer wheat-derived products.
Further, the locals’ intake of important vitamins and minerals had not suffered as a result of rising prices.
So what did the media get right when it scared consumers away from quinoa?
Drawbacks of Quinoa Production
The media scare that led to the quinoa bust got one thing right: The quinoa boom had negative effects on Peruvian farmlands and the environment.
Increased demand had led to unsustainable farming practices. Farmers trying to keep up with demand and make more profit abandoned tradition.
Inefficient Industrial Technology
Industrial harvesting and post-harvesting technologies have been introduced, reducing the use of sustainable, small-scale production.
Because quinoa production had not been a largely produced crop before the boom, quinoa-specific machinery had not been developed yet.
Companies, wanting to automate their processes, began to use technologies adapted from other crops, which led to problems with waste and inefficiency.
The results? There was wasteful consumption of water, energy and gas. Wastewater polluted nearby bodies of water and the quality of the grain was compromised.
To reduce losses, quinoa-specific machines have emerged, for example, a new system of dry cleaning, a quinoa washer and a dryer.
These solutions, although not as sustainable as traditional methods, reduce energy loss and greatly reduce harmful by-products.
Walsh-Dilley, in her study on a community in Bolivia, notes a hopeful return to traditional practices, stating that producers in the area are abandoning tractors and returning to hand labor after seeing the negative consequences of automation on the land; land degradation and poor quality soil.
Pesticide and Fungicide Use
Monocropping single-variety quinoa makes the crop more susceptible to pests and as a result, farmers are using more pesticides.
Pesticides can contaminate water sources and the soil when overused. They’re shown to affect the land’s fertility in the long-term because they kill off beneficial microorganisms that live in the soil.
And because quinoa farming has expanded, quinoa is being grown outside of its traditional areas where the crop is more vulnerable to disease and fungus.
Recent FDA “Import Refusal Reports” show Peruvian quinoa has been refused entry to the U.S. because of high levels of fungicides and pesticides.
Erosion and Unsustainable Farming
Traditionally, lands used for quinoa production are:
- worked manually
- farmed communally
- grown on raised beds
- rotated with a variety of crops
- fertilized by manure from llama herds
These traditional practices protect the integrity of the soil, keeping it nutrient-rich and preventing erosion.
Unfortunately, in order to produce higher yields and make more profit, many farmers have:
- sold their llamas
- stopped crop rotations
- no longer respect ‘rest’ periods for the land to recover, known as fallow
- worsening soil quality each year
- more erosion
- more desertification
The people of Peru will soon be faced with the harsh reality that land is finite.
It’s crucial that the government incentivize the use of traditional and responsible farming practices before production capacity drops to extremes.
Loss of Genetic Diversity
Part of what makes quinoa a future source for global food security lies in its diversity.
However, due to the Global North’s preference for light-colored, large grains, farmers are demonstrating a tendency to produce much less variety.
The ‘standard’ variety that emerges is less resistant to diverse climates and pests.
By ‘watering down’ genetic diversity, quinoa’s nutritional value is also weakened.
We’ve already confirmed that the economic quality of life of communities involved had, by and large, improved during the boom. However, the quinoa boom did not come without socio-economic conflicts in other regards.
Who Does the Land Belong To?
In many Andean communities, land is held in common.
When some farmers began to use tractors to clear land this was seen as a form of land appropriation.
When land is cleared and utilized without a negotiation or comprehensive agreement, this can lead to ownership conflict.
Llama Farmer Conflict
When quinoa is farmed traditionally, llamas are an integral part of the farmers’ success because their manure is used as fertilizer.
But as quinoa farmlands expand, grazing land for llamas shrinks, causing tension.
Further, llamas often invade quinoa fields and destroy crops as a result of decreased territory and this, too, causes tension between farmers.
Many llama farmers have abandoned llama farming and have turned to the more profitable quinoa production.
This has resulted in a decreased llama population; another example of biodiversity that’s at risk as a result of abandoning sustainable practices.
Intellectual Property Rights
Archeological evidence confirms quinoa’s presence in the Andes region for the last 5,000 to 8,000 years, making it easy to accept Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador’s role as the ‘creators’ of quinoa.
Many are calling for intellectual property rights as a way to safeguard this tradition and natural resource.
The argument is that Andean farmers need protection from unbalanced competition if developed countries, like the U.S., begin to cultivate and sell their own quinoa crops worldwide. Surely, with their greater production power, they would overtake Andean profits.
More than 1300 suits have already been filed against corporate business.
In fact, small farmers need protection from big business, not only abroad, but in their own countries.
The quinoa bust left small farmers without the financial means to compete in today’s market. Large-scale Andean producers have the technology, capital and credit to increase yields and monopolize the market.
A large segment of the Andean population is now completely reliant on quinoa. Rice, asparagus and other crops along the coast of Peru have been replaced by quinoa.
This puts communities in a vulnerable position. Changing trends could provoke a drop in demand which can put many families at financial risk, just like the quinoa bust in 2014.
The same agrobiodiversity that has primed quinoa for its food security super powers, is preserved by the cultural heritage of the Andean people.
Researchers fear that the encroaching capitalism and neoliberal individualism that come with the growing popularity of quinoa, could damage Andean culture.
Currently their culture is based on social reciprocity and cooperation, which allows Andean people to share lands and farm together, maintaining their traditions.
Without these traditions, the hope for quinoa as a sustainable food product could be lost.
The Benefits of Quinoa
As you’ve seen, quinoa production is provoking environmental and socio-economic threats. But fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom.
Quinoa has a lot of potential as a sustainable crop with the ability to make food more secure for vulnerable regions around the world.
Quinoa went from being a ‘neglected and underutilized species’ to being recognized by the FAO of the UN for its incredible nutritional value. So much so that 2013 was named the “International Year of Quinoa.”
Quinoa is high in protein, fibers, minerals, antioxidants, vitamins and it’s gluten-free. You can read the nutrition facts here.
Quinoa is a protein source superior to soybean, barley and wheat. Thanks to its amino acid profile, it’s now regarded as an alternative to dairy products.
Quinoa oil, rich in essential fatty acids, contains antioxidants and boasts a long shelf life. The compounds therein promote positive effects on the immune system.
“The mineral content of quinoa seeds is found to be at concentrations greater than most grain crops. Including a high content of calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc.”
As you can see from the nutrition facts, quinoa is a source of vitamins like riboflavin and folic acid.
Typically used as a grain or flour in breads, soups, and fried products: Quinoa is popularly a gluten-free option that allows those with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity to enjoy bread, pasta, biscuits and noodles made from quinoa flour.
Quinoa’s Potential in Global Food Security
The FAO of the UN has high hopes for using quinoa to aid its efforts to reduce global hunger and secure food for all.
Areas that suffer from food insecurity often suffer from harsh conditions like:
- rocky or sandy soil
- violent winds
- high solar radiation due to high altitudes
- high salinity
Amazingly, there are tolerant varieties of quinoa with the plasticity to resist these exact environmental conditions.
In fact, the environment in Altiplano, Peru produces quinoa despite its harsh conditions like those listed above.
Additionally, quinoa can be produced at low costs and can offer poverty-stricken communities high nutritional value to fight malnutrition.
Morocco, Greece, India and Pakistan have tested quinoa production in areas where drought occurs and have had positive results.
A repeating theme in this article is that for quinoa to be sustainable, farmers, governments, cooperatives and quinoa companies must embrace traditional farming practices that respect crop rotation, biodiversity, land held in common and ‘rest’ periods for the land.
We know quinoa has the potential to be farmed sustainably because it already has been, and many small farmers continue to do so.
Reduce Meat Consumption
Raising livestock accelerates climate change because it requires large consumption of water, intensive waste-management, and large amounts of deforested land for grazing.
Plant foods are less resource-intensive and thus produce a lower carbon footprint.
Protein-rich plant foods like quinoa help us get the nutrition we need and reduce our meat consumption at the same time.
Reduce Water Use
Quinoa has been used to replace crops that require heavy irrigation, like rice.
The overuse of irrigation for rice has caused salinization along the coast of Peru, leading to land degradation.
The Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture has been experimenting with quinoa as a means to reduce water consumption and reduce the salinization problem.
“Quinoa: An Overview of the Potentials of the Golden Grain…” cited here throughout, posits that rice requires an average of 15,000 m³/ha of water where quinoa requires only 6000 m³/ha.
Repurposing Quinoa’s By-Product
Saponins are chemical compounds found in plants.
In quinoa seeds, saponins are the naturally occurring chemical compound that protect the plant from herbivores and disease.
They are found on the outside of the seed coat, but are stripped from quinoa during post-harvest processing because of their bitter taste and low nutritional value.
Saponins are typically considered a wasteful by-product of quinoa production.
However, the new innovations in quinoa production have been focusing on recovering saponins during post-harvest processing to create a useful bi-product that can be used in other industries:
- bio insecticides
- animal fodder
The pharmaceutical industry is interested in the research suggesting that saponins contain anti-fungal and anticarcinogenic properties, as well as potentially lowering cholesterol.
For example, one of the most invasive species in the world, the Golden Apple Snail (GAS), threatens rice production around the world.
Researchers experimenting with the quinoa husk in a laboratory setting found that they could kill the Golden Apple Snail without harming fish:
“Therefore, quinoa saponin may be used
as an environmentally friendly alternative for protection of rice cultures against GAS.”
According to Peruvian government figures, almost 40% of quinoa farmers are women who are usually inflexible to take other jobs because of their role as caregivers for children and the elderly.
When the quinoa market is doing well, like during the boom, women are given a boost in income and autonomy.
What Can You Do as a Responsible, Eco-Conscious Consumer?
Instead of cutting quinoa out of your diet, shop fair-trade. Do your research and know where your quinoa is coming from. Look for packaging with fair-trade logos. Choose certified organic quinoa.
Anyone selling fair-trade quinoa will have that information readily available on their website. If you can’t easily find information about a brand, there’s probably a reason for that.
Fair-trade quinoa is more expensive but paying the fair price comes with being a part of the solution.
Also, you can diversify your quinoa diet. Instead of only eating light-brown, large-grain quinoa. Try a variety of sizes and colors to promote genetic diversity.
What’s Next for Quinoa?
The future of sustainable quinoa is uncertain.
The jury is still out on what’s best:
- Limit production?
- Increase production in a sustainable way?
Undoubtedly, there’s a need for more research and resources to promote and maintain sustainable farming practices, while involving small farmers to avoid shutting them out of premium market prices.
An ITC study recommends government incentives for smallholders to buy silos and store quinoa for the time when demand rises. Small farmers can form cooperatives and differentiate their quinoa as fair-trade and organic to compete with large farms.
Researchers will continue to fill in the gaps. Hopefully the rumors that negatively affect the market will get debunked while the reality of the environmental damage done will incite holistic and sustainable policy change.
The battles ahead include unequal power relations, funding limitations, technological access and gaps in the legal framework that make access to fair positioning difficult to attain.
The community itself must be involved in developing a strategy to ensure the future of biodiversity, conservation and management.
The video below is part of the Digital Storytellers synthesis of the Swiss Programme for Research on Global Issues for Development.
It was created by Alejandro Romero, PhD candidate of the “Feminization, agricultural transition and rural employment” research project that is coordinated by CDE, University of Bern.
The video offers a glimpse of the risks and uncertainties that Bolivian quinoa farmers face, and the strategies that they’re using to face those risks.
Although the quinoa boom did not come without its negative environmental and socio-economic side effects, this seedy grain superfood has the potential to not only reach sustainability status but also help those affected by climate change, in a sustainable way.
In fact, many small farmers in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador are already producing sustainable quinoa as we speak, using their traditional methods.
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