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Rectifying the Facts About Quinoa

Lavoie-Mathieu’s examination of the facts behind media claims that quinoa’s growing popularity is socially and environmentally destructive comes to a more nuanced conclusion.

February 20, 2013, marked the launch of the International Year of Quinoa (IYQ) in New York. The purpose of the IYQ is to highlight the potential of the “golden grain” in reducing poverty and food insecurity while bringing recognition to the indigenous peoples of the Andes. Paradoxically, claims remain that the popularity of the Andean grain is causing a real environmental and social catastrophe in Bolivia. Quinoa is a clear illustration of the complexity of issues involving food security and economics.

Quinoa has been “the cultural anchor and a staple food in the diet of millions of people throughout the Andes for thousands of years,” declared UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the launch of the International Year of Quinoa. This year, “quinoa is now poised for global recognition,” he further claims. But the UN argument comes despite severe public criticism and repetitive media claims that quinoa’s popularity is socially and environmentally destructive.

The Beauty of Local Adaptation

The UN claims that “quinoa offers an alternative food source for those countries suffering from food insecurity.” The rationale behind this statement is that quinoa is easy to grow in a vast array of environmental conditions, but especially in arid and poor soils, such as those of the Bolivian Altiplano.

With the hype surrounding its nutritional benefits, demand has swollen.

Subsequently, prices have increased from 890 to 2,100 euros per ton between 2007 and 2008, when a series of frost events destroyed large parts of the quinoa harvest, thus drastically reducing the offer in some of the most productive regions.

This has in turn motivated a number of alarmist articles in the Guardian, The New York Times and other publications exposing the “hidden side of quinoa,” claiming that farmers were now switching to cheaper, yet less nourishing food staples.

Andrew Ofstehage, Ph.D student at the University of North Carolina whose research has focused on quinoa farmers in Bolivia, argues that local consumption depends on market access and the community level of isolation. There is little information available, he says, on whether higher prices have affected farmers or not. He argues that the impact is primarily felt in communities that are near market centers and that more isolated communities often maintain previous levels of self-consumption in gross quantity, if not percentage, due to the higher amount planted.

The very low prices of imported grains and the increasing interest in buying processed goods as a sign of economic improvement and “modernity” could explain the falling rates of quinoa consumption, according to Ofstehage, and not the increase in exportation and price. In fact, quinoa is still viewed as a “poor people’s food” in some areas.

It had also been reported that the extensive cultivation of quinoa has led to higher rates of biodiversity and genetic loss. Between 2007 and 2010, as part of the Emergence of Quinoa in Global Food Trade (EQUECO) project, Institut de Recherche Pour le Développement, in partnership with French and Bolivian organizations, including the Institut national de la recherche agronomique (INRA), Programa de Investigación Estratégica en Bolivia (PIEB) and the Paul Valéry University (UM3) studied the consequences of quinoa cultivation on social and agricultural sustainability in the Altiplano. These groups argue it is false to think that local consumption rates have gone down and that biodiversity is endangered through genetic loss and monocultures.

The claims of environmental and social disaster are vastly exaggerated, states Thierry Winkel, researcher at the IRD, and “just a matter of sensationalism.”

“When people say that only cultivating Quinoa real is a threat to biodiversity, it’s false.” he says. He explains that there are, in fact, various varieties within the Quinoa real that peasants cultivate. But these have yet to be classified or standardized by botanists. According to a recent inventory by the PROINPA foundation in charge of the national quinoa collection, there are more than 50 local varieties comprising the group of Quinoa real. This means that even in monoculture, many varieties of Quinoa real are cultivated and that there is no genetic loss.

Quinoa as a Factor of “Social Cohesion”

Furthermore, several publications have claimed that the boom in quinoa has “exacerbated conflict over land use and could further lead to broken community links.” According to Pablo Laguna, a development anthropologist with 15 years of research experience in Bolivia, quinoa plays an important factor in the “social cohesion” of members within the same community. For example, the increase in commercialization and sale of quinoa has brought a lot of farmers to take responsibility within their community and has pushed many to organize together. “The conflicts that have developed are not new,” he claims, “but are the result of years of a weak state’s inability to implement policies that would help manage natural resources.” Furthermore, geographical boundaries have always been unclearly defined and the state has never acted upon this issue, he argues.

Transformation of Rural Livelihoods

The Bolivian state is looking at increasing the areas of cultivation of quinoa as a way to alleviate poverty, especially in rural areas. According to Ofstehage, cultivating quinoa is advantageous for farmers mainly because it is not financially risky. He says that farmers do not have to incur large debts for production inputs because the intense use of agro-chemicals was mostly abandoned in the ’80s. Moreover, he continues, “If a quinoa crop fails, most farmers will respond by sending family members abroad or look elsewhere for wage labor.”

He concedes that the intensification of quinoa cultivation needs to be achieved in a sustainable way. According to Ofstehage, “the main question remains if this production can be sustained and overuse can be avoided.”

The Way Forward

Increased research is needed and, according to Laguna, it is important to move away from Green Revolution technologies and types of intensification. Research should look at ways to preserve soil fertility through conserving biodiversity, especially in the south near the salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni where local agro-ecological conditions are fragile.

The (re)integration of livestock, such as llamas, should also be emphasized. This is essential as it provides farmers with fertilizer and can supplement families’ needs and revenues through the use of products derived from livestock such as wool and meat.

Flexibility and pluri-activity (multifunctionality) are keys to successful agriculture, according to Laguna and Winkel. It is important to diversify the economy by encouraging tourism and the growth of other economic sectors as much as the cultivation of quinoa.

The state also has a role to play in helping farmers balance production and environmental resources, in providing greater access to education, financial help, and helping to manage local genetic diversity.

Protecting the Genetic and Agricultural Heritage

Bolivia is not alone in promoting the growth of quinoa. In fact, all the negative publicity quinoa has received lately in the papers is, according to Laguna, the best of excuses to start growing in other places and encourage customers to buy “locally grown” quinoa.

As a result of the rising demand, North American and European cultivators have started growing varieties of quinoa. For example, Jason Abbott in association with the Plants Research Institute at the University of Wageningen (the Netherlands) has been working in the Loire Valley (France) at finding quinoa varieties that could be grown in northern regions. Quinoa is now grown in countries such as Canada, the US, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, and also in India, Kenya and China.

Growing quinoa in Europe and North America could arguably contribute to increasing poverty in Bolivia, discouraging the sustainable growth of quinoa and stealing Bolivians’ markets, says Winkel. This is because quinoa is one of the only crops that can thrive in the poor, arid soils of southern Bolivia and only now has it reached a high price on the market.

The IRD study has shown that negative environmental and social impacts have been inflated by the media, which understate the benefits that quinoa farmers have been able to reap from the extensive cultivation of quinoa fueled by a booming demand.

Ironically, in North America and Europe, the quinoa varieties that are being grown so far retain a bitter taste, according to Laguna. Nature’s work or simple coincidence?

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