Who has started eating quinoa in the last few years? I first ate it in college, when it was $2.00/box. It made a nice nutritious substitute for rice in pilaf. In the last two years, I’ve shifted away from it. The price has risen dramatically, from $2.00 to $3.00 to $4.50 for that same box. Instead of eating it three or four times a month, I cook it up maybe once a month or less. It turns out, that’s a world-wide trend. Sadly, our infatuation with it is leading to clear negative health and social impacts.
The recent popularity of quinoa has led to rising prices internationally, affecting not only first world consumers who enjoy it but rarely need the additional protein but also Bolivians (and Peruvians, I’m sure) who depended on the protein balance provided by the pseudo-grain. Families are substituting much cheaper (20% the cost of quinoa) rice and noodles, which provide calories but lack the protein, fiber, and micronutrients. In the eternal cry that the youth are losing culture, children and young adults chose processed foods like Coke over quinoa drinks. Traditional foodways are being lost, even as farmers produce more of the seed for export.
The Bolivian government is taking some small steps to preserve domestic intake. They are serving it to vulnerable populations, via school breakfast programs and outreach programs to pregnant women. Culturally, though, a government can only do so much.
What is our responsibility as the consumer? Should we stop buying quinoa or should we decrease consumption? There is no easy answer. Simply stopping our purchases would lead to a drop in prices, and subsequent negative impacts on the farmers who grow it and now depend on the higher prices. Sudden price shifts can and do lead to economic devastation and associated problems like malnutrition and lack of education for children. Decreasing consumption would hopefully lead to a smoother shift in prices to an price equilibrium that supports producers while still allowing Bolivians to purchase their traditional food. But, quinoa is a nutritional powerhouse and nice alternative to animal-based protein. It’s also a hypoallergenic food– somebody somewhere is probably allergic to it, but generally it’s safe to serve to a crowd. Supporting its consumption is a responsible nutrition policy.
In short, the wisest approach would be gradually increasing domestic production to grow a portion of quinoa domestically. (Current domestic production is estimated to be less than 10,000 lbs/year by the ARS.) Domestic production would decrease demand gradually, allowing farmers to adjust as their incomes shift, while easing quinoa back into the food budget of the average Bolivian. Commercial production, or home production, has been successful in Canada and would be feasible in cool mountainous regions. Exploring the possibility of growing it as a winter crop in warmer areas would also be a possibility. Oh, by the way, my supporting anecdote: Seed Saver’s Yearbook now lists approximately 20 varieties for the backyard grower.