This story is from New Worlder’s partnership with Heated from Medium x Mark Bittman, a site that showcases the links between food and just about everything else: agriculture, politics, history, and labor; culture and cooking; identity, family, and love.
The arid, cold, and windswept altiplano, the Andean plateau that rises 12,000 feet above sea level and straddles the border of Peru and Bolivia, is where most of the world’s quinoa has traditionally been grown. Yields are small here, though there aren’t a lot of pests or diseases.
The unpredictable landscape requires farmers to often plant more than a dozen varieties at a time, ensuring some will withstand fluctuations in temperature and rainfall, while pasturing llamas on fallow fields, then rotating them to another, stabilizes the soil and minimizes environmental impact. Several thousand years of cultivation has led to astounding agricultural biodiversity, though it could all be undone by the choices you make at the supermarket.
After about 2005, quinoa went global. It wasn’t so much the nutty flavor or versatility of the plant, or its cultural significance, that caught everyone’s attention, but the marketing of it as a health food. It was kosher, gluten-free, and a complete plant protein at a moment when those attributes were highly sought after. Oprah Winfrey put it on her health food cleanse diet, and the masses went crazy for it. Soon, it jumped from niche hippie grocers to Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and eventually every major supermarket chain in North America. In 2007, the U.S. imported 7.3 million pounds of quinoa. By 2017, that number had ballooned to nearly 74 million pounds. That’s aside from the growing demand for quinoa in Europe and Asia. Supply could not keep up, so, naturally, prices jumped.
The living standards of rural farmers rose dramatically, giving them not just food security, but food sovereignty. They had the economic stability to choose what they ate, and farming cooperatives upped their political power, giving them a greater voice in the food system. A 2016 study on the welfare impacts of the rising price of quinoa in Peru by the Economics Department at Towson University found that “increases in the purchase price of quinoa are associated with a significant increase in the welfare of the average household in areas where quinoa is consumed, which suggests that the quinoa price increase has had general equilibrium effects extending to non-producers.”
Not everyone benefited from high quinoa prices, however. Those more removed from the farmers, such as consumers in urban areas like Lima and La Paz that only ate quinoa on occasion, were forced to decide exactly how much more they were willing to pay for it than the imported white rice and processed flours, which are subsidized and have artificially low prices. Some bought less quinoa and others didn’t, while new consumers embracing the fad entered into the fold, too. It is also important to consider that part of the soaring demand was coming from within the region. Large quantities of quinoa were being reserved by the governments of Peru and Bolivia, which made quinoa one of the cornerstones to fight malnutrition, giving it to schoolchildren and young mothers. So, the actual overall consumption of this healthy food in those countries was increasing, not the other way around, yet that’s not what the media would have you believe.
In January 2013, the UN-declared International Year of Quinoa, writer Joanna Blythman penned a story in The Guardian titled “Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?”
“But there is an unpalatable truth to face for those of us with a bag of quinoa in the larder,” she wrote. “The appetite of countries such as ours for this grain has pushed up prices to such an extent that poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom it was once a nourishing staple food, can no longer afford to eat it. Imported junk food is cheaper. In Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken. Outside the cities, and fueled by overseas demand, the pressure is on to turn land that once produced a portfolio of diverse crops into quinoa monoculture.”
The idea went viral, and other publications picked it up: “Are you a terrible person for eating quinoa?” Grist asked. “The food fad that’s starving Bolivia,” the Independent declared. “The dark side of quinoa,” Esquire warned. There were dozens of stories that led you to believe that hipsters and soccer moms, despite their good intentions, were hurting the livelihoods of Andean farmers.
“I’ve asked small farmers in different parts of the Andes about this on numerous occasions, and I generally get the same response.
“The effects of rising prices have been positive,” said Manuel Díaz, head of sales for COOPAIN-CABANA, a cooperative of quinoa farmers in Peru’s Puno region. “The income of producers continues to rise because they have been increasing their production, investing more, earning more, and improving their household income.”
Near Chinchero, Peru, I asked potato farmers Manuel and Élmer Choqque about this when I saw the quinoa they had growing on their land, and they just looked at me.
“Is that ridiculous?” I asked.
“If the price for quinoa goes up, we just plant more quinoa,” Manuel told me. He explained to me that it’s general practice for Andean farmers to set aside quinoa for personal consumption.
Various stories eventually came along to show how those clickbait headlines were misleading (like this and this), but it didn’t matter, because the demand for quinoa was rising anyway. More quinoa has been planted in Ecuador, Argentina, and Chile, and quinoa crops have popped up everywhere from Colorado’s San Luis Valley to the Netherlands, though more than 80 percent of the world’s quinoa is still planted in Peru and Bolivia. Farming cooperatives in the Andes made significant investments in equipment and planted more seeds; however, industrial quinoa being grown at low altitudes, mostly in Peru, has surged. Peru produced around 114,500 tons of quinoa in 2014, up from about 44,000 tons a decade before, turning it into the world’s largest producer. While yields are often higher along the Peruvian coast than in the Andes, insects and diseases are also more frequent, requiring heavy use of agrochemicals. This the cheapest quinoa you will find in supermarkets right now and is the biggest threat to the livelihoods of Andean quinoa farmers.
The flooded marketplace of cheap, lower-quality quinoa and the obliviousness of consumers has forced some Andean growers to make adjustments to compete. Some are using more grazing land for planting quinoa, moving away from environmentally friendly methods of production. Some are opting to grow fewer varieties with more commercial potential rather than utilize the full range of quinoa’s genetic diversity.
Supporting Andean farmers doesn’t mean buying less quinoa. It means opting to buy the healthier, more sustainable, and, often, more expensive quinoa that they grow. However, most of the quinoa brands on American shelves aren’t exactly transparent on where they are buying their product.
The biggest brands peddling quinoa in U.S. supermarkets include Bob’s Red Mill and Ancient Harvest, along with in-house brands for Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Many of the brands plaster their websites and advertisements with labels related to quinoa’s healthy properties, like “gluten-free,” “non-GMO,” and “plant-based,” though there is little about fair-trade sourcing or the farms or cooperatives they purchase from. While some smaller brands like Alter Eco are very clear in their sourcing, most brands simply say their quinoa is from Peru or Bolivia, which means it could either be highland quinoa grown organically by Andean farmers or industrial quinoa sprayed with pesticides at lower altitudes.
In general, a good bet is to look for the words Quinoa Real, or Royal Quinoa, on the packaging. This is one of the most sought-after forms of quinoa, grown between the salt lakes of Uyuni and Coipasa on Bolivia’s southern altiplano. The name was established in 2003 by ANAPQUI, an association of small producers, and in 2016 a larger group of cooperatives joined the effort. Rather than just a single varietal, quinoa real is a collection of seven to 10 varieties of quinoa seeds, each with different attributes, planted together. These farmers are seeking a designation of origin for Bolivia’s Southern altiplano, which will be managed by a regulatory council and potentially include a verification seal.
Determining which quinoa from Peru benefits small farmers is more difficult. The traditional growing areas include the Andean provinces like Ancash, Cusco, Apurimac, Huanuco, Huancavelica, Ayacucho, and Puno, where the farming practices share similar traits to southern Bolivia. In fact, Puno, bordering Lake Titicaca and the primary region of quinoa production in Peru, is studying a similar effort for a designation of origin.
While it’s clear that a better tracing system needs to be enacted, as a consumer, you have the power to demand it every time you purchase a bag of quinoa at the supermarket. If you eschew the most inexpensive quinoa that isn’t transparent about where it is grown, you can be a part of the solution. You might need to spend a little bit more for organic quinoa grown in the Andes, but it’s a better product for you, the planet, and the small farmers whose ancestral knowledge made it possible.