25 Nov 2014

Quinoa boom threatens people and their environment

Theresa L writes:*

Quinoa has been an essential food for Andean people over centuries but, until recently, was unnoticed in most of the Western world. I got to know quinoa when living in Ecuador four years ago. Back home in Europe, the crop could only be found in fair trade shops or specific organic supermarkets. Today it is promoted as a "Superfood", becoming ever more trendy due to being the grain crop with the highest nutritional value per 100 calories. No matter in which supermarket I have recently been, quinoa was always prominently featured.

As consumers in Europe, the United States and Australia enjoy the valuable addition that quinoa is for their diets, its world market price has tripled since 2006. It is now strongly discussed whether this price increase has more negative or positive effects on traditional producers and consumers in Peru and Bolivia. According to a study of the FAO (pdf) local quinoa consumption didn't break down. Instead, higher prices enabled farmers to afford products like fruit and vegetables that they weren't able to consume before the quinoa boom. However, non-farmers, especially the urban poor, only face higher prices. Critics thus point towards the fact that many locals can't afford quinoa anymore and are forced to substitute it with cheaper but less nutritional products like rice or noodles.

Additionally, the increased demand of quinoa leads to serious environmental problems. According to the FAO, more than 50 percent of interviewed quinoa farmers in Bolivia noticed a decrease in soil quality during the past three years. This is due to the land now being farmed year-round and being treated with pesticides. Additionally, farmers focussing on higher quinoa production are allowing their lama populations to shrink. Thus, the important services of grazing and fertilizing traditional farms and preventing erosion with their large, padded feet is missing. The Southern Altiplano area where quinoa is grown is a very fragile ecosystem as it has an average altitude of 3,600 meters where not many organisms are able to survive. Therefore, changes like an increase in quinoa along with a decrease of lamas that might seem little can bring this ecosystem out of balance, threatening its future fertility.

Facing these problems, quinoa lovers might question whether they should still consume the product. That decision may be easier in the future, as cultivation expands in the United States, Canada, China, Denmark, India and Australia. In the meantime, consider organic and fair trade quinoa if you want to support Peruvian and Bolivian farmers and their environment.

Bottom Line: A boom of an agricultural commodity might be beneficial for the GDP of a country and for particular groups involved in production, but is at the same time problematic for the environment and national consumers. Higher incomes due to an increase in the market value might thus not make up for the total negative effects.

* Please comment on these posts from my environmental economics students, to help them with unclear analysis, other perspectives, data sources, etc.