Did you know that most of the quinoa sold in the US market is organic and most of it comes from Bolivia? Are you aware that over 40,000 smallholder farmers in Bolivia have been lifted out of poverty through quinoa production? Quinoa gives hope to people who believe world hunger can be solved through organic, smallholder family farms. Quinoa is the trailblazer of all ancient grains, and it’s also the contributor to a food trend that could lead to instability.
When the United Nations launched the International Year of Quinoa in 2013, José Graziano da Silva, head of the FAO, emphasized the role quinoa was expected to play: “We are here to recruit a new ally in combating hunger and food insecurity — quinoa.” Much has happened in this acclaimed year and it’s important to understand the opportunities as well as the challenges quinoa presents.
Quinoa has been cultivated for over 4,000 years and it once provided important nutrition and protein to the pre-Columbian Andean civilizations. Quinoa is a species of goosefoot, closely related to beetroots, spinach and tumbleweeds. It is grown primarily for its edible seeds and is considered “pseudo- cereal,” rather than a true cereal. We now herald quinoa for its nutritional value and consider it our “new” super-food. We know that quinoa’s protein content per 100 calories is higher than brown rice, potatoes, barley and millet. Quinoa is a source of complete protein, a good source of dietary fiber, phosphorus, magnesium and iron. It is a great source of calcium, which makes it ideal for vegans and people with lactose allergies. And Hallelujah! Quinoa is gluten-free and easy to digest. Even NASA’s Controlled Ecological Life Support System is evaluating this wonder food for consumption in human occupied spaceflights! No wonder civilizations were built on this humble seed and where in the universe will it take us next?
Alas, quinoa is now in the midst of a market storm and has been bolstered by market trends, such as gluten free and organic. The U.S. is the main market for all quinoa exported, taking an estimated 30% of all the world’s quinoa produced in 2013. What has transpired is rapid growth in consumption as well as a steep increase in price. The average price of quinoa has increased seven fold in the past 10 years alone.
All this has proved beneficial for Bolivia’s smallholder famers who cultivate quinoa on an average of 3 hectares using llama dung and other organic inputs. Back in 2004 these farmers struggled to survive, producing just enough quinoa to eat and to trade locally. Local prices have gone from .60 cents to $2.70 in the last 10 years, allowing farmers to send their children to school and make important social improvements. As prices have risen, the diets of the indigenous people have also become less limited: in addition to quinoa, they can now buy fruits, veggies and other nutritious foods. Before the boom, quinoa was virtually the exclusive food of the poor. Today they still eat quinoa, mainly because it’s stored in their homes. They sell their crop gradually over the year, never all at once, and their crop is their savings and food insurance all in one. It took celebrities talking about Quinoa for it to become chic in the U.S. and an important food staple in indigenous growing areas.
As the world consumption of Quinoa skyrockets, new areas of cultivation are being sown in non- traditional areas, such as the US, Canada, Australia, France and India. This increased cultivation could lead someday soon to an oversupply and a sharp decline in prices. And that’s the conundrum: local farmers are grateful for high prices now, but how can this wonder seed remain a healthy and affordable staple for the poor while also an economic boon to small holder family farmers?
The recognition of the original Andean origins and a commitment to organic and Fair Trade will de-commoditize Andean grown Quinoa and help stabilize the market. To prevent a return to poverty for those who originated this super-food a niche market must be created. Many small growers and exporters are obtaining Fair Trade and organic certification to protect against the strong competition emerging from other countries. Export prices for this niche market will produce good international income while stabilizing the local prices for traditional consumption. It’s important to remember these Bolivian farmers cannot switch to another crop when quinoa prices fall: they farm on marginal lands, at 12,000 feet of altitude in a highland desert. Nothing else grows where they are.
Fair trade premiums are managed directly by the local growers associations. They produce benefits that provide such basics as electricity, sanitation and heating. Accessibility to health care and education services also becomes available locally. Education on organic soil stewardship alleviates the threat of soil erosion and degradation. To read more on the benefits visit Fair Trade USA’s blog: “It’s OK to Eat (Fair Trade Certified) Quinoa”.
The next time you purchase quinoa, don’t hesitate to select the one with the Fair Trade and the USDA organic seal. Those extra few dollars mean a world of difference to indigenous Andean farmers who bring us this super food. Let’s give them super hope for a sustainable future!