Quinoa has been called a ‘superfood’ for its near-perfect balance of proteins and all eight amino acids. It is not a grain, but a chenopod, related to beets and spinach. It is native to the Andes in Latin America where, for centuries, it has been a dietary staple of Bolivians. But, as the New York Times reports, those nutritional properties that give quinoa so many health benefits—if you’re a vegan, quinoa is a good choice to assure adequate protein intake—are putting the so-called ‘gold of the Incas’ out of the price range of more and more Bolivians.
While global demand for quinoa has meant a windfall for farmers, Bolivians are themselves turning increasingly to the processed foods too familiar to those of us in the US. Those whose native diet was once based on the ‘superfood’ are now are in danger of malnutrition.
The New York Times notes:
The shift offers a glimpse into the consequences of rising global food prices and changing eating habits in both prosperous and developing nations. While quinoa prices have almost tripled over the past five years, Bolivia’s consumption of the staple fell 34 percent over the same period, according to the country’s agricultural ministry.
The resulting quandary — local farmers earn more, but fewer Bolivians reap quinoa’s nutritional rewards — has nutritionists and public officials grasping for solutions.
International demand for quinoa has had ramifications for Bolivian society as well. Isolated rural areas like Salinas de Garcí Mendoza, ‘a community on the edge of the salt flats in southern Bolivia where much of the country’s quinoa is produced,’ have seen a rise in living standards. People no longer have to emigrate to places like Argentina and Chile in search of work.
But, with more if not most of the quinoa raised dedicated for export, officials note an alarming rise of chronic nutrition in children in quinoa-growing areas:
“I adore quinoa, but I can’t afford it anymore,” said Micaela Huanca, 50, a street vendor in El Alto, a city of slums above the capital, La Paz. “I look at it in the markets and walk away.”
Officials in President Evo Morales’s government say that changing food preferences and increased ability to buy processed foods also play a role.
“It has to do with food culture, because if you give the kids toasted quinoa flour, they don’t want it; they want white bread,” said Víctor Hugo Vásquez, vice minister of rural development and agriculture. “If you give them boiled water, sugar and quinoa flour mixed into a drink, they prefer Coca-Cola.”
A 1,000-gram bag of quinoa (just over two pounds) costs approximately $4.85, says the the New York Times. In comparison, the same weight of a bag of noodles costs about $1.20, while a bag of white rice costs $1.
Perhaps we should see the story of quinoa as a cautionary tale: Certainly we all wish to eat as healthfully as possible, but it is tragic if this ‘superfood’ of the Andes becomes simply another option for the well-off who shop at the likes of Whole Foods, and no longer fills the bowls of those whose ancestors once subsisted on it.
Photo of flowering quinoa by net_efekt.