The Truth About Quinoa
Are Western demands for the superfood depriving Bolivians of their ancestral grain?
CAN recognizes quinoa as Bolivian
As Peru, Colombia and Ecuador have recently admitted that Quinoa was 100% Bolivian, questions about the social and environmental impact of this superfood on Bolivia continue to be debated.
The Community of Andean Nations (CAN) released a statement last week acknowledging that the cereal’s origin was exclusively Bolivia.
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As a consequence of this measure, the CAN member states will no longer be allowed to use quinoa’s prestige in their own name, explained Vice-minister of Rural Development, Victor Hugo Vasquez, according to ABI. It will also help to improve the international prices of the cereal, open markets in Europe, and establish intellectual and genetic rights over its production, explained the vice-minister.
Indeed now that the quinoa real [the most commercialized variety of quinoa] from the high Andean plateau (altiplano) has received the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) from the CAN, now the European Union needs to recognize the origin of quinoa, the vice-minister explained.
Since the recent re-discovery of quinoa as a “superfood”, becuase of its excellent nutritional properties – even NASA recommended it for its astronauts – demand for it in Europe and the United States has skyrocketed, as has its price, both abroad and in Bolivia.
Following this trend, a debate had begun as to whether this increased consumption has had a negative impact on Bolivian farmers.
Who really benefits from the increase in the price of quinoa?
The debate abroad has mostly focused on the economic impact of the price increase on Bolivia: if it has improved Bolivians’ living conditions or if Bolivians are finding it harder to consume the once sacred grain (during the Inca empire).
However, while there is no doubt that poverty is being gradually reduced in the country, partly thanks to quinoa exports, the profits have not benefited the producers in an equal way.
According to Tanya Kerssen, a research coordinator at Food First and the Institute for Food, “There are many divisions [inside the quinoa sector] — especially as a huge number of new actors have been attracted by quinoa’s profitability in recent years.”
She told teleSUR English, “One division is between farmers who stayed in their altiplano communities, and those who left decades or even generations ago to seek greater opportunities elsewhere and are now coming back.”
The new arrivals are usually more concerned with short-term profitability, unlike the traditional communities of farmers (Ayllus). Yet the latter group is rapidly losing market share, according to Kerssen, as they used to control 55 percent of quinoa exports – private companies 45 percent– in 2004. “By 2013, private firms controlled 70 percent of the quinoa export market, a percentage that’s probably even higher due to the rapid entry of private firms,” she added.
Moreover, another important factor lies in the identity of the buyer. While fair trade buyers usually attempt to deal with traditional communities of producers, give them a fair price, and promote sustainable practices, a growing number of buyers are less careful and even pressure the producers to meet high quotas in the short term.
Do Bolivians eat the quinoa they produce?
The most controversial part of the debate resides in whether Western elites’ new interest in the “superfood” is depriving the Bolivian people from their own traditional grain.
First, according to official figures, 58,000 tons of quinoa were produced in 2012, including 26,252 for export. However, the figures don’t take into account quinoa sold as contraband, which would represent about 24 percent, leaving only 24 percent consumed in the country, according to Kerssen.
Further, despite the recent price increase, quinoa is not necessarily the traditional food anymore in non-producing regions, seven thousand years after the Inca empire made the grain sacred. In urban areas especially, Bolivian dietary habits vary greatly from the countryside, such as the Altiplano.
The role of trade policies implemented from the 1950s, favoring U.S. importations of wheat-based products for instance, particularly contributed to this situation.
However, national consumption of quinoa has slightly increased under President Evo Morales, who pushed for quinoa to be included in programs to combat malnutrition – Morales was himself a quinoa farmer in the past, and was also appointed the Special Ambassador to the FAO for the International Year of Quinoa.
In 2013, the FAO stated that the rate of malnutrition in the country had lowered by 30 percent since 2005, after having one of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world for decades. Nevertheless, in 2012, 24 percent – two million people – were still suffering malnutrition.
The real victim: the Pachamama
There is consensus however in that an increase in demand for quinoa around the world has had a huge impact on the environment.
Indeed, in order to meet international demand, the production of quinoa has been intensifying, leading to a dramatic fragilization and impoverishment of soils. The quinoa crops are harvested on a very fragile ecosystem; farmers used to rest every eight years in order to maintain soil fertility.
Yet monocultures of quinoa intensively cultivated every year are no longer fertilized by llama herds, and the government is encouraging a mechanization by handing out tractors. In the long term, this could be most disruptive for peasant-indigenous communities, as they risk losing the means to their survival.
The real question then for Western quinoa consumers who are concermed about Bolivians’ well-being, then may well not be “to buy or not to buy [quinoa]”, as Kerssen argued in an article of the same name. Obviously, buying fair-trade would be a first step to help sustainable social and environmental practices, but in order to improve the conditions of rural communities, the whole land system should be reformed in the country – as a growing landless movement is struggling with the government to obtain agrarian reform.
As a sign of this division, the CONAMAQ, one of the main national federations of Ayllus, decided to leave the Unity Pact, a coalition of five organizations supporting Morales’ government, in December 2011. The fact that the quinoa sector was not supported by the state in the past could be a strength in the future, as it has meant that many quinoa communities are well organized.