The Global Price of Quinoa

A Bolivian Farmer in her quinoa field.

A Bolivian Farmer in her quinoa field.

It seems that you can’t walk into a restaurant or pick up a food magazine these days without being threatened with quinoa. Quinoa salad, quinoa smoothies, quinoa ice cream… No, really. That’s a thing.

For those who haven’t been exposed to the cult yet, quinoa is a nutrient-dense, gluten-free grain that comes from the Andes. The locals have been growing it alongside potatoes, corn and alpacas for thousands of years. In fact, the Incas considered the grain to be sacred and referred to it as chisaya mama or ‘mother of all grains’.

The Incan accolades for the grain was justified. The protein content of quinoa averages at around 23%, whereas most other grains sit at around 16%. Furthermore, it has an exceptionally nutritious balance of good fats, oils and starches. Considering that anything containing gluten is being deemed unholy in modern day society, it’s hardly surprising that quinoa has become immensely popular with foodies and overly protective mothers whose children don’t actually have special food needs.

Quinoa isn’t the first superfood to be embraced by healthy lifestyle communities and hipster cafes. It’s been preceded by the likes of Goji berries, chia seeds, kale and agave – just to name a few. It seems that us diet conscious Westerners believe in equal opportunity when it comes to impacting on developing nations.

It’s unlikely that many of us think of the impact that food consumption has on anybody but ourselves, particularly when it comes to superfoods and functional foods.  In fact, research indicates that the global market for functional food will reach $177 billion by 2013, with compound annual growth averaging 7.4%.

So we’re all getting healthier by gobbling up every nutrient rich food trend faring from a country we may or may not be able to point out on a map. Most of us are of course blissfully unaware of the horrific environmental and social impact that our constant demands on the global food market are having on the nations that are exporting them. We may even be naïve enough to believe that the hardworking quinoa farmers are now Oprah Rich thanks to the fistfuls of cash we’re throwing at their products. Well, whatever helps us sleep at night.

Funnily enough, the assumption that quinoa farmers are making money off the global trend is somewhat correct.  As the quinoa fad took hold around the world, and prices tripled in five years, its growers experienced a new kind of prosperity. The kind of prosperity that brought them more money than they had ever seen. Great, right? Not exactly.

In a sick twist of fate (and by fate, I mean inflation), their new found riches still fall short of what they need to actually buy the grain that they themselves grow, harvest and have lived off for thousands of years. According to the New York Times, as of 2011, local consumption of had fallen by 34 per cent in five years.

All is not lost though, as there are many things that Peruvian and Bolivian farmers can now afford. With their new found ‘wealth’ they can buy Western staples such as Coca-Cola, white bread and processed foods. Suffice to say, chronic malnutrition in children is rising dramatically in quinoa-growing regions.

Some of us, including myself, try to combat global poverty by specifically snatching up packaging that has that bright and shiny ‘fair trade stamp.’ Despite these good intentions, and the feeling of self satisfaction that come with them, all this is really doing is further encouraging farmers of developing nations to exploit their natural resources for the nutritional gain of Westerners. But they’re getting a supposedly fair wage, so it’s okay, right?

One final thought – I understand the temptation of being a food wanker. To some extent, I am one. The pull of nutrition rich miracle foods that taste spectacular and improve your health is almost too much to resist. To those of you like me, I pose this alternative plan that will help you to remain a self righteous food wanker without the fear of exploiting Peruvian farmers –

Buy local.

Continuously buying imported exotic products is not only having a negative global impact, it’s also undermining local staple food crops and self sustainability. It only takes a little research to discover that many of our favourite superfoods are being grown on our doorstep, figuratively speaking. In many cases, these locally grown crops are organic, and we all know how much foodies love throwing that word around.

By all means, be a food snob. Just try and do it ethically.

Have you jumped on the quinoa bandwagon? Or are you more likely to be found frequenting your local Farmers Market? Flick us your food-based thoughts in the comments below, on Twitter or Facebook.

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2 Comments

Filed under Mind, Body and Soul

2 responses to “The Global Price of Quinoa

  1. Yes! A thousand times, yes!
    Thank you for this – I’ve been on a ‘buy local’ kick for a while now, mostly because I feel a responsibility to support local farmers and businesses who are producing great food. I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the other side of the story, but it’s made me more determined to be really aware of what I’m buying, and from where.
    Brilliant post 🙂

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