In January and March 2011, several English-language press outlets ran stories on quinoa production in Bolivia. National Public Radio and the Associated Press reported on quinoa as a development project, hailing its benefits to farmers in the altiplano region of Bolivia. The New York Times article focused on quinoa’s rising popularity abroad making it less affordable for low income Bolivians. Both AP’s “Quinoa’s Popularity a Boon to Bolivians,”[i] and the Times’ “Quinoa’s Global Success Creates Quandary at Home” highlight the complex relationship between food security and economic development in Bolivia, although with differing perspectives.
The impact of rising food prices is complex and encompasses food security and sovereignty debates, issues that are difficult to address thoroughly in brief articles. Until a comprehensive study provides insight into rising quinoa prices, it is difficult to make strong affirmations. The impact of quinoa production and export must be understood both within the framework of global food security issues and specific local contexts. While these articles presented some important issues, challenging local conditions that affect quinoa consumption and production also substantially affect income generated by this crop.
Quinoa fetches a guaranteed high price affording farmers economic stability. This economic power has also translated into political power though producers’ associations and cooperatives. Since the 1970’s, these organizations have worked toward greater producer control of the market, spurring other political actions such as blockades and protests for greater economic and environmental rights in quinoa-growing regions.[ii]
Missing key aspects of the “quinoa quandary”
Unfortunately, the Independent article, “The Food Fad That’s Starving Bolivia,” and several online reposts of the Times piece misrepresented the complex relationship between malnutrition and rising quinoa prices by encouraging North American and European consumers to stop buying Bolivian quinoa. Although the Times never suggested this solution for Bolivian malnutrition, a letter to the editor advocated that exact idea.[iii] Adam Sherwin made glaring and easily avoidable errors in the Independent, for example citing the North American Aztecs when he should have mentioned the Andean Incas. Furthermore, whole paragraphs of Sherwin’s article are copied almost word for word from the Times’ piece, yet Sherwin manipulated its conclusions.
He further incorrectly argued: “There is a potential threat to South America’s farmers – quinoa can thrive in the wet climes of Bolton as well as Bolivia. An increasing number of Britons are cultivating their own supply of quinoa in kitchen gardens and allotments,”[iv] suggesting that small-plot quinoa production in North America and Europe threatens Bolivian farmers’ income. In doing so, he implies that buying Bolivian quinoa negatively affects Bolivian consumers, yet growing it at home negatively affects Bolivian farmers. He thus conflates consumption and production issues, with no supporting analysis., and misrepresents the role of international consumers..
Complications of price-based analysis
- Simon Romero and Sara Shahriari wrote in the Times: “Fewer Bolivians can now afford [quinoa], hastening their embrace of cheaper, processed foods and raising fears of malnutrition in a country that has long struggled with it.” By ‘processed foods,’ the authors clarified that they meant simple carbohydrates such as white flour and rice, rather than canned or pre-prepared products with chemical additives that provide lower nutritional value. However, less nutritious white rice and wheat actually require cheaper, simpler processing than the costly, complicated procedures necessary to make quinoa edible. Raw quinoa must be soaked, rolled, and rinsed to remove the bitter resin covering its seeds.
- It’s important to understand comparative food prices accurately presented by the Times in context. Quinoa does on average cost U.S. $4.85 per kilo in Bolivia, compared to white rice at about $1.10. However, quinoa is more filling than rice and as a result, generally is eaten in smaller portions. For example, many people add small amounts of quinoa to soups and stews. Furthermore, the Bolivian government subsidizes staples including wheat and rice, artificially lowering prices. Currently the Morales administration struggles with how to keep food prices affordable while satisfying producers’ needs (See “Ongoing, Unresolved Issues Likely to Perpetuate Tensions in Bolivia”).
- Furthermore, rising food prices are a global problem, and virtually all staples have increased in price in Bolivia. For example, rice prices have almost doubles during the last five years.[v] While most pasta often costs less than quinoa, prices vary greatly. Some pasta varieties – particularly whole-grain and more nutritious types – cost over $5.00 per kilo, more than quinoa. These prices do not reflect rising international costs, but domestic consumption preference; there is lower demand for the more expensive varieties.
- While quinoa is extremely healthy, Bolivia also produces other highly nutritious seeds and grains, including kañawa[vi] and amaranth. Both are increasingly available in flours, granolas, and baked goods. Encouraging production of these grains and seeds for domestic consumption could provide alternatives to high priced quinoa for Bolivians. These grains are not yet widely grown for export, and could therefore remain economical in the national market. Quinoa is not the only nutritious part of the typical Bolivian diet, and with properly managed development and nutrition programs the Bolivian government could expand production and consumption of quinoa alternatives.
- It is crucial to compare current malnutrition levels to statistics from the 1970’s – when quinoa production for export initially accelerated – to accurately analyze its effect on farmers’ nutrition. The causes of malnutrition in the altiplano, a historically poor and under-served part of the country, are multi-faceted and linked to harsh agricultural conditions, poor infrastructure (which makes food products from the rest of the country less accessible and more expensive), and low economic opportunity.
- Families make complex choices between keeping quinoa for their own consumption or selling it to invest in education, housing, small businesses, and other food staples. In fact, most quinoa-producing families still eat quinoa at least once a week, and others do so daily. [vii]
Harsh Production Conditions Help Explain Higher Prices
- Farmers face additional challenges, both in growing and selling quinoa. Smugglers take quinoa into Peru, selling it at a higher price without benefitting Bolivian producers. Some of this quinoa later makes it way to international markets, giving the bulk of profit to Peruvian sellers.
- Periodic droughts in the altiplano, which will likely increase with global warming, can kill crops or delay production. Furthermore, altiplano soils are dry and lacking in nutrients, making organic and sustainable farming a challenge. However, many farmers continue to practice organic techniques since organic quinoa fetches a higher market price.[viii]
The importance of a balanced historical perspective
- Quinoa production is far more robust than it was before the 1970’s.[ix] It is crucial to examine long-term trends to understand why quinoa is such a valuable resource.[x]
- In general, the quinoa boom greatly benefits farmers in spite of little state support. [xi] According to Kevin Healy, “The fact that some indigenous quinoa pioneers had to seek out adequate technologies for quinoa processing in neighboring Peru is a testimony to the low public status which quinoa agricultural development faced for various decades of the modern era despite Bolivia’s position as the world’s premiere quinoa producer.” [xii]
- The Times article links to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) website when it cites “American foreign aid organizations” that helped farmers start growing quinoa for export (along with European groups). However past projects, many funded by (USAID), often encouraged farmers in the altiplano to grow wheat[xiii] instead of traditional crops. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, these projects largely failed, especially as farmers could not compete with low-cost wheat from of U.S. food assistance programs.[xiv] Furthermore, international aid organizations and the Bolivian government continued to encourage both wheat and rice production – helping to explain its continued prevalence in the Bolivian diet.
- In fact, the smaller, more pragmatic U.S. Interamerican Foundation and various European organizations helped support farmers’ initiatives to significantly enhance their income through export. USAID support only began within the last five years, after production and export circuits had been established and prices had already increased.
Personal preferences matter
- Quinoa production and consumption in Bolivia vary by local context and individual choice. According to Andrew Ofstehage, Bolivian quinoa farmers often make individual decisions. Some farmers prefer not to market their quinoa through co-ops because they gain greater benefits and avoid prohibitive transport costs. [xv] Instead, they sell to intermediaries or barter to enrich their diets with fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as other staples.[xvi]
- As Romero and Shahriari suggest, quinoa consumption in Bolivia fluctuates by region and personal preference. They quote the Bolivian Vice Minister of Rural Development and Agriculture: “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. If you give them boiled water, sugar and quinoa flour mixed into a drink, they prefer Coca-Cola.”[xvii]
- Outside of the altiplano, Bolivians consume quinoa less frequently, especially in the lowlands, since it is not grown there nor considered a staple food, although this pattern has shifted due to highland migrants moving into the lowlands. Quinoa has been part of the diet in the mid-highland regions, such as Cochabamba, for centuries. In past decades, quinoa’s popularity declined among the upper middle classes in favor of wheat and rice that they perceive as more “sophisticated” and “upwardly mobile.” Ironically, the valorization of quinoa in North American and European markets has caused many up-scale Bolivian restaurants to begin serving quinoa and the middle and upper class to consume more of the grain.
Conflicting data complicates research
- The lack of verifiable data complicates quinoa research. For example, the Bolivian government, quinoa producers’ associations and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) all track quinoa production, yet release completely different statistics. Contraband quinoa smuggled into Peru, informal sales of quinoa, and lack of documentation in all quinoa-producing parts of Bolivia all further complicate tracking the percentage of quinoa exported versus sold domestically. This situation highlights the need for more careful and precise reporting on quinoa production and consumption.
Big picture: Food security and development are complex, global issues
Recent media coverage on quinoa lauds Bolivian rural development initiatives or highlight food security concerns. In reality, the “quinoa quandary” encompasses both approaches; examining it through only one lens obscures the multi-faceted nature of quinoa production and consumption in Bolivia.
Food security and sovereignty are ever evolving – neither term has a universal definition or scale of reference. Food security, at the most basic level, implies an adequate food supply to give all people proper nutrition. Proponents of food sovereignty, on the other hand, affirm that small producers and consumers should have influence in shaping food policy.[xviii] As a result, it is crucial to acknowledge the global scale and system that affects food prices and consumption choices.
Experts on food issues point to the need to consider the multiple hierarchies of power involved in food production and prices in order to understand how positive changes can be made.[xix] The Times published a letter to the editor that asserted: “While I appreciate being able to find such a nutritious and satisfying product on the shelves of my local supermarket, I’d gladly give it up to ensure that Bolivians can afford to eat it. Having foods from around the world is a convenient luxury so long as others are not paying a hefty price for it.”[xx] Foreign consumers of quinoa can stop buying the grain, but this change would actually intensify existing poverty and malnutrition by taking away Bolivian producers’ steady source of income. True food and economic security must be achieved simultaneously.
Bolivian quinoa production straddles the line between food and economic security. There is no easy answer to the problems created by rising food prices. However, the positive changes for quinoa producers cannot be ignored in the debate. As Healy explains:
Quinoa’s current boom would probably have been much weaker had the Quechua and Aymara producers themselves not organized producer associations to revitalize quinoa real (the most commercial variety of quinoa) back in the late seventies and eighties. In contrast to Peru where quinoa received a big boost from the national government, Bolivian state institutions with the exception of several agricultural research stations provided little support to producers for credit, marketing or processing nor promote recognition of its food value among Bolivian consumers.[xxi]
Just as they have pushed to expand the quinoa industry, Bolivian producers and consumers must be the catalyst to push for greater food security and sovereignty. Bolivian Government nutrition programs have begun to incorporate quinoa into school breakfast and new mothers’ subsidies,[xxii] finally recognizing the important role quinoa can play in food security. Quinoa farmers, government entities and funding organizations must work collaboratively to insure that quinoa continues to benefit both producers and consumers in Bolivia.
[i] Note: this AP article prompted the NPR story
[ii] Ofstehage, “The Gift of the Middleman: An Ethnography of Quinoa Trading in Los Lipez of Bolivia.”
[iii] Loubaton, Emily, “ Re ‘A Food’s Global Success Creates a Quandary at Home’(news article, March 20),” letter to the editor, the New York Times, 26 March 2011.
[iv] Sherwin, Adam, “The food fat that’s starving Bolivia,” The Independent, 22 March 2011.
[vi] Other similar crops include kañiwa and kiwicha.
[vii] AIN Interview with Andrew Ofstehage, PhD Candidate at UNC Chapel Hill, 3 May 2011.
[viii] Healy, 183-4
[ix] Ofstehage interview
[xi] Ibid and Ofstehage Interview.
[xii] Email communication, 11 May 2011.
[xiii] Spanish settlers introduced rice and wheat into the Bolivian diet.[xiii]
[xiv] Healy, Kevin, Llamas, Weavings, and Organic Chocolate: Multicultural Grassroots Development in the Andes and Amazon of Bolivia, Univeristy of Notre Dame Press, 2001: 161-162
[xv] Ofstehage interview.
[xvi] Ibid; See also: Ofstehage, Andrew “The Gift of the Middleman: An Ethnography of Quinoa Trading in Los Lipez of Bolivia.” Master’s Thesis, Rural Development Sociology, Wageningen University, August 2010.
[xvii] Romero, Simon and Sara Shahriari, “Quinoa’s Global Success Creates Quandary at Home,” The New York Times, 19 March 2011.
[xviii] Patel, Raj, “ What does food sovereignty look like?” The Journal of Peasant Studies 36: 3, July 2009, 663–673.
[xxi] Email communication with Kevin Healy, 11 May 2011.
[xxii] Municipal Government of La Paz, “ El mejor desayuno escolar de Bolivia llega con más sabores y productos,” 31 January 2011.