Few words have more successfully entered the health food vernacular in the last few years than quinoa (with a respectful tip of the hat to both curly kale and chia seeds). This humble grain, grown in the Andean regions of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru for thousands of years, contains all essential amino acids, and thus became known as ‘the complete protein’, the perfect natural food supplement for vegetarians and fitness fanatics alike. Consequently, quinoa imports into the US increased more than tenfold between 2004 and 2013.
However, as the popularity of quinoa was taking off, hot on its footsteps were stories suggesting that Western fondness for this newly trendy ‘superfood’ was having a devastating impact on developing communities back in South America, many of whom relied on it for their daily nutrition. With prices shooting through the roof, and all available stocks of quinoa being packaged up and shipped to wealthy consumers overseas, local Andean people were being forced to look elsewhere to put food on the table. This economic narrative suggested quinoa might be one of the most unethical products on our shelves. However, a recent study reveals a more complex story.
‘It is not right to say that this is making people worse off and threatening livelihoods,’ responds Marc Bellemare, Director of the Centre for International Food and Agricultural Policy at the University of Minnesota. Bellemare led a recent study in Peru on the impact of this ‘price shock’ on changes in the welfare of households in quinoa-consuming districts. ‘On the basis of our findings, we actually found a very, very small positive effect,’ he explains, ‘which we interpret as being the spillover effects throughout the economy of quinoa production that trickle down to the people that actually consume it as well.’
Bellemare’s research shows that when the price of quinoa dramatically increased, it had positive knock-on effects for entire communities, with everyone benefiting from the new wealth of the quinoa producers – a modest 0.07 per cent average increase in the welfare of quinoa-consuming households from every one per cent increase in the price. The report concludes: ‘the claim that rising quinoa prices were hurting those who had traditionally produced and consumed it... was patently false.’
While this may be a comfort for anyone who was feeling guilty about adding quinoa to their diet, there remains evidence that the market has yet to stabilise, with prices recently dropping, and returning to the pre-spike level of 2012. ‘That’s the sad part of the story,’ continues Bellemare. ‘Informally and very anecdotally, we know that people have been holding onto their grain, hoping that the price was going to go back up. Unfortunately, my best guess is that it’s probably not going to.’
This was published in the June 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.