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Global Demand for Quinoa Means Those Who Grow It Can’t Afford It

Global Demand for Quinoa Means Those Who Grow It Can’t Afford It

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.


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Photo of flowering quinoa by net_efekt.

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8:40AM PST on Mar 5, 2014

I am trying to cut back on meat and dairy products but it is a slow transition. I found an excellent vegetarian recipe using quinoa. I was shocked at the price....$6.50 for a one pound bag. It's expensive here too and I think if farmers in the US start to grow this grain it will help the situation. This might be a good investment for the farmers.

2:58PM PST on Jan 24, 2013

I never ate it . I read it is from a common weed that also grows in the US and used to be eaten by Indians. Does that mean that we can grow it here..or find the weed and eat it ?

11:55AM PST on Jan 19, 2013

A 1,000-gram bag of quinoa (just over two pounds) costs approximately $4.85, says the the New York Times. Here in Michigan it goes for at least $5.30 a pound

7:15AM PST on Jan 19, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

5:22PM PST on Jan 18, 2013

noted :(

6:05AM PDT on Mar 27, 2012


4:34PM PDT on Aug 31, 2011

hmm. growing a plant in the USA that is not native. 'tis not like 80% of things here are native anymore.

but it is still better than murdering fish to eat right? or sould I eat my sardines and leave the psudo grain to it's people? or trade them beef jerky for it?

3:54PM PDT on Jun 7, 2011

It is a simple issue of supply and demand. If you look at how it is cultivated, most of it is done by hand and because of its somewhat unpredictability, harvest mechanization is difficult. To put it into perspective, in 2005 there was a little over 60,000 metric tons harvested in the world compared to almost 700 million metric tons of wheat harvested in the world. Therefore, the supply side of quinoa remains rather stable, while the demand keeps increasing. If you remember your high school economics lessons, this situation creates higher prices. Yes, it has helped put money in the pockets of farmers who cultivate it, however plenty of would-be profits goes into taxation and tarrifs which goes to the governments who are encouraging US consumption. This is a luxury food here, and a staple there... which is more desasterous given a sharp increase in price? Reduce the demand here and prices will fall there.

1:43AM PDT on Jun 4, 2011

To a lot of people who have commented on this article.

If you STOP buying quinoa from the farmers who produce it, how does that help them? Also if you start looking to grow it in the USA that's even worse for them because eventually it will be exported to THEM as the USA always tries to control the market for everything. Leave it the way it is and buy their product even if, and I agree with you all, it is over-priced just because it has been classed as a 'Superfood'. We should instead try to do something about that.

8:00PM PDT on May 13, 2011

so sad

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