The Quinoa Craze: The Occasional Problem with Buying Better Food

Personal experience tells us that it costs money to buy food. And it’s also obvious that it costs more money to buy better food, the sort often labeled “organic,” “fair trade,” “free of preservatives,” and so on. A somewhat recent food trend in the latter camp is quiona (keen-wa), a Peruvian whole-grain full of amino acids and known as a complete protein. This item is praised in the food-conscious, vegan, and “granola” crowds. It provides a serious dose of protein, can be a meat replacement, and has a delicious nutty taste.

But there’s a sad, little-known fact about this whole-food item: the people that grow the crop can’t afford to eat it anymore.

When Americans got wind of the health benefits of this grain, sales took off and the main countries growing quinoa began to suffer as a result. It is now cheaper for Peruvians to buy chicken and “junk food” so that Americans can have quinoa at an affordable price. The demand for quinoa in America is so high that farms in Peru and Bolivia are shifting from a variety of vegetables grown on those farms to being a quinoa monoculture. And even then, what was once the main item in their diet is now too expensive for their own consumption.

This is why it’s important to know how certain foods get on the grocery store shelves here in America. Our demands for healthier foods are good, but they don’t impact the eater alone. Knowledge of the affect our quiona-craze is having upon the communities where it is produced will not likely change our demand for it. But as eaters are more informed, there may be more concern for quinoa farmers (and those of the next food craze) that could result in better regulation for the foods we think we our diet must have. We’ve long known that it matters what we eat. But the truth is, the food we eat has a long history that we consume with every bite.

About Jewel Evans

Loves living in Louisville, Kentucky with her husband, Mike. She fills her days with delicious food, coffee, running, and books that you can melt into. Find her on Twitter at @jewelstar87.

  • http://southbystyle.com Lauren Rambo

    This is fascinating. It just speaks to the difficult and somewhat impossible nature of trying to eat in a way that doesn’t exploit people. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://byzantium.wordpress.com Kullervo

    Eat the way the overwhelming majority of human beings throughout history have eaten: locally. That’s how.

  • anonymous

    Boom. Roasted.

  • Andrea Cavanaugh

    A good reminder that a low price is not the highest virtue in shopping for food, as so often seems to be touted.

  • http://www.andeannaturals.com Sergio Nunez de Arco

    I am so glad that Christ and Pop Culture has written a piece about quinoa. It is so important for followers of Christ to know the impact of our actions on others- and food is one area where we can be agents of change.

    I took some time to write a reply, as this article was based on erroneous information. It is simply not true that farmers cannot afford quinoa.

    I am a quinoa specialist with Andean Naturals. I was born and raised in Bolivia, the world’s main producer of quinoa. Our company is the main supplier of quinoa to the United States, has over 100 employees in Bolivia and purchases the product from thousands of small family farms. We are an importer, so we don’t sell direct to consummers, but to food companies who sell quinoa under their own brands.

    As a follower of Christ I do my best to keep the company aligned with Christian values- which for us means measuring our success not only on financial metrics, but on environmental and social ones as well.

    On the environmental side, we are called to be good stewards of the earth. For us this means promoting organic agriculture and making sure that growers have sustainability plans in place. It means investing as much as we can to provide at no cost to the growers technical assistance from agronomists and financing field trials to show them adapted technologies, improved fertilizers and pesticides (all organic certified). For us it means keeping synthetic pesticides and fertilizers out of the quinoa fields. Last year we invested $60,000 in these programs.

    On the social side, we are called to pay the growers fairly for their work. We do not believe it was fair when five years ago a family of quinoa farmers made $35/month and survived on quinoa alone. Today that family makes over $220/month and can afford to keep their children in school. Yes, they eat less quinoa because they can now afford to add vegetables, fruits and other staples to their diets. Yes, they don;t always make the wisest choices: they buy white rice and pasta which are convenient and fast cooking. Still, they are the top consumers of quinoa in the world, eating 6 servings per family per day on average (at least a serving per person). To make it easier for farmers to eat quinoa (otherwise they have to wash and clean it in their homes, which takes hours), we have an exchange program, where farmers can bring up to 5% of their crop and we exchange it washed and cleaned at no cost to them.

    It’s important for consumers to know that growers in Bolivia have no other crop options. They farm of lands at 13,000 feet of altitude in a highland desert- with only 8 inches of rain a year and frost all year-round. Their livelihoods depend on quinoa. Another cool thing: farmers are organized as communities and their communities own the land- there is no individual private land owners! And for now no large-scale mechanized, private agriculture.

    Quinoa has been a huge success story- it has improved the lives of thousands of farmers. I deeply believe quinoa is a good thing. It’s so important for consumers to make sure their quinoa comes from small organic family farms that are paid fairly for their product. We do not want quinoa to become a commodity, where the consumer no longer knows where it comes from, or what impact its cultivation has. All that matters is price. In a commodities market companies compete and cut corners to reduce costs- all in the name of greed.

    I am passionate about quinoa, I deeply believe it’s one good thing. Farmers get a fair price, it’s mostly organic. I’s hypoallergenic and such a healthy food…

    Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions. I can tell you more about this success story. I pray that Lord will move through what we’re doing and that somehow the farmers will see His hand in what has happened in the quinoa industry. It’s a real miracle that I have witnessed in the last 5 years.

    Hope this helps!

  • http://www.amylepinepeterson.com Amy Lepine Peterson

    Slate also covered this story, arguing that it’s more complicated than news outlets were suggesting this week:
    http://www.slate.com/articles/life/food/2013/01/quinoa_bad_for_bolivian_and_peruvian_farmers_ignore_the_media_hand_wringing.html

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