Potential ethical ramifications of the quinoa craze

Opinion by Ramya Balasingam
May 24, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

Hailed as the one of the most nutritious, protein- and fiber-rich foods, quinoa has gained much attention in recent years. Many new recipes have been created that describe ways to cook and present this 4,000-year-old Incan food.

However, with the sudden increase in attention for quinoa, some have started to wonder about the ethical ramifications of this boom, especially with regard to the economic welfare and health of the Peruvian and Bolivian farmers who grow it.

South American countries — and particularly ones near the Andes — are ideal locations for growing quinoa because they possess the arid and relatively cool climate that the crop needs. One of the biggest challenges the boom in quinoa has posed is that supply has not kept up with demand, causing the price of quinoa to triple (averaging about $6 per kilogram in 2014). People have started questioning ethical implications of the rise in the price of quinoa because poorer people in the Andean regions are no longer able to afford this nutritious food.

In 2013 The Guardian wrote an article voicing these concerns, which sparked a lot of conversation, since a human well-being aspect was brought to the issue. This was a particularly incendiary article, because U.N. data shows that about 16 percent of Bolivians and 7.5 percent of Peruvians lack sufficient nutrition.

But analysis shows that The Guardian’s concerns should be balanced with other points of view and facts that have emerged recently. Although consumption of quinoa in Andean regions did drop as prices rose, this drop was part of a steady trend — and not strictly correlated with the abrupt increase in price. In particular, data suggests that the reduction in quinoa consumption was caused to a large degree by a preference for other, non-quinoa foods.

Bolstering this point further, a new study shows that quinoa only makes up a small portion of the average Andean diet, with only about 0.5 percent of household spending being dedicated to quinoa. This contrasts with the situation in other underdeveloped countries, where people living in poverty often spend large amounts of their savings on a staple food that has — due to high export demand — become increasingly expensive. Thus, the rise in quinoa price does not necessarily negatively affect the lives of the Andeans.

In fact, it has also been shown that the rise in prices has greatly improved the livelihood of Andean quinoa farmers. Before the rise in demand, these farmers were destitute, but between 2004 and 2013, quinoa farmers’ household expenditure increased by 46 percent. Additionally, this appears to have had a positive impact on the general economy, since, with every 25 percent increase in the price of quinoa, household consumption increased by almost 2 percent.

However, although the concerns voiced by The Guardian do not seem to be pressing at the moment, these concerns may become important soon, as farmers in other places such as the U.S. and Europe start growing quinoa. This increase in supply, would lead to a decrease in prices, which may, in fact, negatively impact the lives of Andean people — both farmers and non-farmers alike.

In the 1990s, researchers at Colorado State University obtained a patent on a specific type of quinoa but ultimately dropped it after Bolivian farmers protested that the entrance of another supplier of quinoa on the global market would harm their well-being. Hopefully other developed countries who are looking to enter the quinoa market will be as generous and will take into consideration the effects that their actions may have on the plight of Andean farmers.   


Contact Ramya Balasingam at ramyab ‘at’ stanford.edu


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