The Dark Truth Behind Popular Superfood Quinoa
Quinoa is rising up the popularity charts as a food staple in U.S. and Europe. A growing spate of positive coverage cites quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wa) as a high-protein grain-like relative of spinach and beets which is a newly discovered gluten-free superfood. Its growing popularity has also spawned a growing source of controversy, following reports that high global quinoa prices put the crop out of reach for the people who grow it.
Many Americans want to get down to the bottom line: Should I eat it or not? Tanya Kerrsen, a Bolivia-based researcher for Food First who studies quinoa, thinks that is the wrong question.
“The debate has largely been reduced to the invisible hand of the marketplace, in which the only options for shaping our global food system are driven by (affluent) consumers either buying more or buying less,” she writes. “…whichever way you press the lever (buy more/buy less) there are bound to be negative consequences, particularly for poor farmers in the Global South.”
So what should you know about quinoa and its complex story?
Let’s begin by looking at the Bolivian Altiplano, the high flat plain in the Andes where quinoa originates, from the perspective you might have if you were to visit. Two and three miles above sea level, the Quechua (modern-day Inca) and Aymara (a people who pre-date the Inca) still live in the same place where they first domesticated quinoa as well as potatoes and many indigenous crops you’ve probably never heard of: oca, arracacha, kaÃ±awa, isaÃ±o, papaliza, and much more.
In the north, around Lake Titicaca, you’ll encounter warm days and cold nights. Altitudes range from 10,000 feet and up. Here you’ll observe a wide variety of crops and livestock: potatoes, barley, lima beans, sheep, pigs, dairy cows, and even guinea pigs (yes, raised for food). You might see some quinoa, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single llama, even though they were domesticated in this region.
Travel south and the temperature gets cold and the climate drier. Cows and sheep give way to llamas and alpacas. The land is covered in shrubs and grasses, although if you head over near the mountain Sajama you can see the world’s highest forest. Even still, the trees are tiny and stunted compared to what you might think of as a tree. Most crops would be unable to grow here, but the llamas and alpacas happily survive off of the native vegetation, as do their wild cousins, vicuÃ±as. As a tourist, you might choose to visit the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats, which form an amazing landscape—literally, a sea of salt.
It is here in the Southern Altiplano, near the salt flats, where one finds quinoa growing for export.
In areas where Bolivians can grow more diverse crops and raise more profitable livestock, they do. But here, very little grows. According to Kerssen, "Quinoa was particularly well-suited to areas with 'high climatic risk' such as the southern Altiplano—able to withstand levels of drought, salinity, wind, hail, and frost in which other crops would perish.” The region is characterized by very little rainfall, more than 200 frost days per year, and poor soils.
The history of this part of the country, and its people, has been virtually dictated by its natural resources and climate. In pre-Columbian times, Andean peoples obtained balanced diets by trading extensively with their neighbors at other altitudes, often based on kinship ties.
This was disrupted when the Spanish found silver nearby in 1545. In the following centuries, an enormous percentage of the local population was conscripted into slave labor in the mines, and many never returned. The Spanish also set up haciendas in much of the country, in which the indigenous farmed to produce food and wealth for white landowners. The haciendas continued long after Bolivia’s independence, until the Bolivian revolution in 1952.
Between the mining and haciendas, traditional kinship ties and community organization was radically interrupted in much of the country. But the harsh climate and poor farming conditions for growing European crops kept the modern quinoa-growing region largely outside the hacienda system.
Through this time, land was managed communally. The flat grasslands were used as a grazing area for llamas and alpacas, and quinoa planting took place on hillside terraces, which Kerssen explains were “allocated by traditional authorities based on a family’s needs.” Remember, before the age of tractors, a family’s supply of labor corresponded to the number of mouths it had to feed. This traditional management system ensured that each field would be left fallow for many years following a quinoa crop to allow the nutrient-poor soil to recover fertility and to prevent pests and diseases.
For centuries and until recently, the indigenous people of Bolivia were typically either ignored by the outside world or oppressed and exploited by them. Even after the white minority in Bolivia established its own government independent of Spain, the indigenous remained an underclass in their own country. Healthy indigenous foods like llama and quinoa were looked down upon as “dirty” and Indian food, and the indigenous and their traditional ways were seen as a roadblock standing in the way of national development.
This is where our modern quinoa story starts.
The first change started in the 1970s. This was at the end of an era when U.S. Cold War policy hoped to stave off communism by introducing hybrid seeds, pesticides, fertilizers, irrigation, and tractors in the Global South.
The initial plan for Bolivia, drawn up by an American in the late 1940s, did not have high hopes for poor peasants of the southern Altiplano and the harsh environment they lived in. After the Bolivian Revolution in 1952, the new government successfully convinced the U.S. that they were all that stood between Bolivia going communist. The U.S. supported them with excessive amounts of aid; in some years U.S. aid accounted for a quarter of Bolivia’s national budget.
While the southern Altiplano was hardly the focus of this aid, they were not entirely cut off from it either. By the 1970s, the first tractors reached the quinoa-growing region. “The introduction of the tractor is the major game-changer for quinoa and for the transformation of the environment,” notes Kerssen.
This is for two reasons. First, the tractors cannot operate on terraced hillsides where quinoa was traditionally grown, so quinoa production moved to the flat pampas where llama herds traditionally grazed instead. Second, while they are much more efficient than farming with hand tools or plowing with draft animals, tractors are worse for soil fertility than their “primitive” alternatives.
That isn’t to say nobody should ever use a tractor, but it’s a factor to consider, particularly when farming on the “fragile, sandy and volcanic soils of the southern Altiplano, which are characterized by high salinity, a scarcity of organic matter, and low moisture retention capacity,” as Kerssen describes them. Additionally, the soils of the hillside terraces, where quinoa was previously grown, contain more clay, nutrients, and organic matter than the pampas. So tractors not only negatively impacts soil fertility, they also necessitate moving from areas of better soil to areas of worse soil.
Meanwhile, during this time, U.S. food aid imports were changing the national diet from traditional Andean foods to cheap, processed wheat products from the U.S. Even today, anyone visiting Bolivia will see vendors selling enormous bags of small white bread rolls on the streets. You’ll be lucky if you find anyone selling pan integral (whole wheat bread), as it’s not the norm.
Back then, when the first tractors appeared, Bolivia was still decades away from the quinoa boom. In the 1980s, the people suffered when, under U.S. influence, its government imposed severe economic austerity. With few prospects to make a living in the economically depressed southern Altiplano, many left. Those who remained had a hard time keeping up labor-intensive farming activities, like animal husbandry. And, of course, with less labor around, tractors became more necessary for those who could access them.
Quinoa export to the U.S. began in 1984. At first, it was not easy. Processing quinoa was done manually, and the end product might taste bitter if its bitter-tasting mildly toxic coating of saponins was not sufficiently removed. Back then, you might even find a small rock in your quinoa, which would have been threshed and winnowed by hand.
With little external support, a cooperative formed by quinoa producing communities, set out to find a better way. They traveled to Peru and Brazil to learn about processing machinery for other commodities, and attempted to build their own quinoa equipment based on a barley hulling machine. In the 1990s, the outside world stepped in. The United Nations financed construction of processing plants, and in 2005, the U.S. and Denmark helped develop new technologies to improve efficiency and quality.
Health-conscious readers in the U.S. already know the end of the story. Quinoa took off. After the prices paid to Bolivian farmers hovered around $500 per metric ton for decades, they skyrocketed to nearly $800 in 2008 and over $1300 in 2010.
With higher prices, families sold off llama herds to grow quinoa on former grazing land and to invest in tractors. The symbiosis of quinoa and llamas, taking and restoring fertility from the soil in turn, was broken. Instead of leaving a field fallow for many years after harvesting a crop, now Kerssen meets many farmers who grow quinoa on their land every other year, or even every year, without allowing the fragile land time to recover. And manure, once abundant from llamas, is now in short supply.
Kerssen has seen this first-hand. While she has seen studies claiming that quinoa can be grown sustainably with short fallow periods if the farmers restore the soil with lots of organic matter (i.e. manure), “then you see a lot of quinoa production… where the plants are very small, very stunted, not very much grain, the soil looks like sand, where it's just clear that very little organic matter has been introduced to the soil,” she says.
“As the animal herds are reduced, the price of animal manure has gone up through the roof,” she continues. “You used to have very easy access to it in your community because almost every community had large herds. That [llama herding] was primarily what they did. But now manure has become this boom commodity and the de facto result of that is that it’s the more well-capitalized farmers with more money who can access the manure, and not the poorer farmers. So I think a lot of evidence points to a process of greater inequality.”
Another consequence is social, as those who have moved to the cities come back to cash in by growing quinoa on their family’s lands. These are folks who are no longer used to abiding by the rules of the rural communities and who continue to live in the cities, visiting their fields a few times a year to plant and harvest. In other words, they do not have the same stake in community that full time residents have.
“When you go through the southern Altiplano,” Kerssen recalls, “It still looks totally abandoned. It looks like it's been bombed out. There are no kids in the schools and the homes are in very, very poor condition for the most part.” Locals, understandably, have little tolerance for urbanites and outsiders hoping to come to the area to make a quick buck in quinoa, and then take their money and leave.
“One thing communities have started saying,” Kerssen explains, is “if you're going to be here and if you're going to grow quinoa, then everyone is required to make certain kinds of investments. It's decided in these community meetings, everything is by consensus.” Perhaps a community will decide that quinoa growers must invest their profits in building a decent bathroom for each family or into a local school. “It's different in every community, but they're making these self-regulations to ensure that the money does not totally leave the community.”
The last issue that is often raised is nutrition. Quinoa became popular because of its health value, yet the quinoa-growing region is the most malnourished in Bolivia because farmers cannot afford to eat their own crops. They sell their high-value quinoa and buy cheaper, less nourishing foods instead. Kerssen sees this as a problem with a history going back as far as the Spanish conquest, when the traditional system of trade among peoples of various altitudes and ecosystems was interrupted.
“I think a lot of pretty simplistic statements have been made which have really scandalized people about how the quinoa boom is pulling quinoa out of the reach of the producers who can no longer afford to eat it, and the situation is much more complex than that,” she says. “The reality is that Oruro and Potosi [the areas where quinoa is grown for export] have the highest rates of infant malnutrition probably in South America. Now is that caused by quinoa or caused by the quinoa boom?
"No, obviously not,” she answers, “Because the causes go very deep going back to the Spanish conquest and the isolation and marginalization of people who used to, through their social systems, have access to all kinds of foods—fruits, vegetables, fish from Lake Titicaca...." But, this is a region that will never have a healthy, diversified diet if they are limited to locally produced food.
Still, she sees truth in the notion that quinoa producers sell off their crops to buy cheaper foods like rice and pasta. "People say it's more worthwhile for me, for my food security, to sell quinoa and to buy things that are cheaper like wheat and rice, that are less healthy but that fill you up… There's no doubt in my mind that that is happening to some degree, but I think it's important to emphasize that malnutrition and hunger and poverty go way back before quinoa was widely produced.”
“I think that there's a development question that's at the core of all development everywhere in the world that is no different here, in Africa, or in the US, which is does having a higher income necessarily lead to better health and a better quality of life? And we know that it doesn't, or it doesn’t necessarily.”
Despite the controversies and the problems, Kerssen sees the quinoa boom as a victory for Andean peasants. “The peasants have been fighting for a market during the most brutal period of neoliberalism. But what’s also clear is that this has gotten away from them, and some things have happened now that they didn’t expect. Now they are dealing with the consequences of it.”
She feels troubled that American accounts of the story “either fall on the side of ‘the quinoa boom is amazing and it's lifting people out of poverty’ or ‘the quinoa boom is terrible and is destroying people's lives,’ and in both of those narratives the indigenous people are given no agency… If we know about quinoa at all in the north, it's because of peasants really fighting anti-peasant policies during the most anti-peasant period… these people being like what can we do to survive on the land with our culture doing something that is culturally appropriate."
Anyone who has visited Bolivia and studied its history knows not to discount the power of the local people, who built one of the most impressive civilizations in the New World and survived centuries of exploitation, keeping their cultures and ways of life largely intact, and ultimately ousting an unpopular, U.S.-backed president in 2003, leading to the election of their first indigenous president ever, Evo Morales.
Today, Kerssen sees many communities “especially in the traditional quinoa growing zone really taking seriously the issue of soil erosion, the issue of social conflicts, due not entirely to the quinoa boom but certainly exacerbated by it.” And, it won’t be surprising at all if they partner with local scientists and NGOs to overcome their problems and continue selling quinoa to the world.
So, given all this, back to the original question: should you buy quinoa or not? Kerssen thinks this question misses the point, reinforcing the idea “that we just need to blindly depend on marketing forces when really the struggle for food sovereignty and the right of farmers goes so far beyond that. It goes to the regulation of trade and the regulation of the food supply and education in Bolivia, around the native crops.”
She concludes, saying, “The fact of the matter is that pretty much everywhere in the world, food that’s produced by peasants, especially native foods, have never gotten any support over, and… one of these foods has now become globally profitable.”