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Quinoa: To Buy or Not to Buy... Is This the Right Question?

We’ve been hearing a lot about quinoa lately. While US consumers prize it as a delicious ‘super-food,’ there is growing anxiety about the impact of the quinoa boom in the Andes, and particularly Bolivia, the world’s top producing country. The media has focused primarily on the fact that global demand is driving up the price of quinoa, placing it beyond the reach of poor Bolivians—even of quinoa farmers themselves—leaving them to consume nutritionally vacuous, but cheap, refined wheat products such as bread and pasta. By this logic, some suggest, northern consumers should boycott the ‘golden grain’ to depress its price and make it accessible once again. 

Others point out that the impoverished farmers of Bolivia’s highlands are at long last getting a fair price for their crop—one of the few crops adapted to their arid, high altitude environment. In this view, global markets are finally “working” for peasants, and a consumer boycott would only hurt the hemisphere’s poorest farmers.

In short, the debate has largely been reduced to the invisible hand of the marketplace, in which the only options for shaping our global food system are driven by (affluent) consumers either buying more or buying less. It’s the same logic that makes us feel like we’ve done our civic duty by buying a pound of fair trade coffee. This isn’t to dismiss the many benefits of fair trade or other forms of ethical consumption, but the so-called quinoa quandary demonstrates the limits of consumption-driven politics. Because whichever way you press the lever (buy more/buy less) there are bound to be negative consequences, particularly for poor farmers in the Global South. To address the problem we have to analyze the system itself, and the very structures that constrain consumer and producer choices. Women weighing a bag of quinoa in a local market in Batallas, Bolivia. (Photo: Noah Friedman-Rudovsky for The New York Times)

 The rising demand for quinoa is indeed contributing to higher prices, which have tripled in the last six years. But even more troubling than the price impact on Bolivian quinoa consumption, is the impact on land use. Quinoa production is expanding at a break-neck pace in one of the most vulnerable ecosystems on the planet: the fragile soils and native pastures of the Bolivian high plateau (Altiplano). These lands were once carefully managed with fallow (rest) periods of eight years or more. Now many areas are in near-constant production, threatening to destroy the soil’s fertility. The llama herds that have provided manure to fertilize subsistence quinoa plots for millennia have dwindled to make way for large quinoa monocultures. Government programs are doling out tractors, and this mechanization is allowing for the cultivation of larger and larger fields.

In a public ceremony in early February, President Evo Morales presented 65 John Deere tractors to communities in the highland department of Oruro to promote the expansion of quinoa. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) announcement that 2013 would be named the International Year of Quinoa goes hand in glove with this big push for mechanization.

Meanwhile, sand storms are increasingly common in the southern Altiplano, an indicator of the progressive desertification of the region. Desertification—characterized by saline soils, loss of nutrients, erosion and decreasing yields—is triggered by the increased mechanization of farming practices, as well as a disruption of the delicate balance between pastoralism and agriculture. Whereas quinoa was once grown primarily on small hillside terraces, it is now moving into large areas formerly dedicated to llama grazing. In so doing, it is wiping out the high biodiversity of native pastures, shrublands (tholares) and wetlands (bofedales)—a diversity necessary for this system’s sustainability and resilience to climate change.

So while no one would argue that Bolivian farmers shouldn’t get a good price for their crop, these trends cannot be ignored—or left up to global market forces. Perhaps most tragic of all is that this boom (and booms are always followed by a bust) is leading the poorest, most vulnerable farmers to degrade their own environment—i.e. the material basis for their very survival and cultural identity—in the name of short-term food security.

Peasants everywhere tend to have an intimate and reciprocal relationship with the natural world—known in the Andes as Pachamama. When this relationship begins to break down, it’s usually because peasants have few or no options. What’s missing from most northern media accounts of quinoa is a discussion of what the range of possible options might look like—that is, beyond the two unsavory extremes of dismal poverty on the one hand, and environmental destruction (invariably leading back to dismal poverty) on the other.

One of the rarely discussed alternative paths is agrarian reform. Bolivia, like most Latin American countries, has a highly unequal distribution of land, with thousands of farmers eking out a living on tiny highland plots, while wealthy elites (including many foreign investors) control enormous lowland plantations, primarily dedicated to export-oriented soy and sugarcane. Over the last few decades, this inequality has generated waves of rural migrants from highland regions to the lowlands, including tropical coca-growing areas, and to the swelling outskirts of cities like La Paz and Santa Cruz. It’s also fed a growing landless movement, now organized as the Bolivian MST (landless worker movement), modeled on the Brazilian example. This movement is actively pushing the Bolivian government to make good on its agrarian reform promises, as a solution to rural poverty and degradation.

Another option—and these are not mutually exclusive—would be to rebuild local food markets that have been decimated by decades of nefarious U.S. aid and trade policies. Might we envision a future in which cheap, highly subsidized U.S. wheat products don’t pour into Bolivia, directly undercutting producers of Andean foods in their own markets? This would require, of course, the political will and capacity to regulate imports (admittedly, import dependence and dietary changes are difficult things to undo). It would also require support for small farmers not only in producing commodities for export but, more importantly, for producing a wide variety of plants and animals for domestic consumption, in a way that is suitable to local ecologies. This is actually something Andean peasants are spectacularly good at—having produced food for thousands of years in one of the most diverse and challenging environments on earth.

Bolivia has a number of laws in place (such as the recently passed Law for Mother Earth, Integrated Development and ‘Living Well’) demonstrating that political will exists on the part of President Evo Morales to promote food sovereignty and peasant production for local markets. But as University of California, Berkeley agroecologist Miguel Altieri notes: 

Discourse must now translate into action. A starting point would be to capitalize on the sustainable peasant production strategies that have stood the test of time—mobilizing indigenous knowledge and ancestral practices (use of animal manure, rotations and fallows, terrace construction, etc.) and spreading these experiences through horizontal, farmer to farmer exchanges.

So while there is no easy solution to the quinoa quandary—much less a solution driven by northern consumers—the issue has generated an important debate about our global food system. At its core, it’s a debate about which strategies are most effective for creating a just and sustainable food system. And consumption-driven strategies, while part of the toolbox for effecting change, are not the only tools. Only by facing the reality that we can’t consume our way to a more just and sustainable world—and examining the full range of political options and strategies—can we start coming up with real solutions.

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