The Real Costs of Cheap Food
Hans Herren, holder of the Right Livelihood Award, demands a global change of food production.
In European and North American food blogs and magazines, the quinoa grain is labelled as protein packed power food and vegan dream. Due to rising demand, quinoa production and prices skyrocketed in the last few years. But rising prices have made quinoa unaffordable for many local consumers in Andean countries.
If you visit Peru’s capital Lima and take a stroll through the streets of Miraflores, the city’s prime tourist area, or Barranco, the renowned hipster neighbourhood, you will notice that basic no-fuss eateries as well as the more upmarket restaurants feature various dishes on their menus containing quinua or quinoa, as you probably know it if you are not from South America. You might think that this is perfectly natural, as you probably know that Peru as well as Bolivia are the countries of origin of quinoa, this Altiplano grain now in great demand in the world’s major cities. However, if you had visited 50 years ago, you would have found a very different story. In the mid-1960s, Peruvian society, particularly in Lima, was very different than it is today. The Andean people were not considered in the same category as the Lima natives, and Andean customs were confined to the circles of migrants from rural provinces, who were few and far between at that time. However, things changed in the 1970s and 1980s. The lack of opportunities in rural areas, agrarian reform and terrorism drove large numbers of people from the mountain areas to the coast. In the 1990s and 2000s, migrants were in the majority in Lima and, as their economic status improved, their customs and culture became more visible.
Staples such as quinoa were only seen on the tables of migrant families, and in many cases even they stopped eating it to be more like the natives of Lima.
Although Lima’s cuisine has always incorporated Andean elements, they were mostly relegated to home-cooking. Even ceviche, now considered the signature dish of Peruvian cuisine, was regarded in the past as too common to be served in ‘high-class’ restaurants, whose menus were dominated by European, particularly French, dishes. Staples such as quinoa were only seen on the tables of migrant families, and in many cases even they stopped eating it to be more like the natives of Lima. However, the social changes mentioned above and other developments affecting Peruvian society gradually broke down these barriers, and foods such as maca (Lepidium meyenii), kiwicha (Amaranthus caudatus) and quinoa became part of the diet of ordinary people in Lima. Peru’s gastronomic boom, which began to resound around the world at the end of the first decade of this century, is a more familiar story.
The earliest traces of the use of quinoa were found in the Ayacucho area in Peru, dating back to 5,000 BC. For successive civilisations, including the Incas, quinoa was one of the staples of their diet, along with potato and corn. The first Spanish chroniclers recorded the existence of this seed, but regarded it as a product of little value and frequently confused it with cañihua (Chenopodium pallidicaule) and amaranth, other traditional Andean crops. Throughout the colonial period, the indigenous Andean communities continued to grow quinoa mainly for their own consumption. In the 1940s, however, the production and use of the crop declined, owing to U.S. food aid policies which promoted the consumption of wheat and other products from outside the South American Andean region. In the early 1960s, a revival of the popularity of ancestral crops was accompanied by a wave of academic interest in quinoa and its nutritional properties, and the 1980s witnessed a slow but steady recovery and increase in production levels.
Although quinoa is now grown in the Colorado area, 90% of all quinoa consumed in the United States is imported from South America.
It was also around this time that quinoa began to arouse interest outside the region. For example, in 1983, the Quinoa Corporation began to market quinoa from Bolivia in the United States under the brand name Ancient Harvest. Although quinoa is now grown in the Colorado area, 90% of all quinoa consumed in the United States is imported from South America. In Europe, the story was a little different; quinoa could already be found in England in the 1970s, and in 1993 the European Union approved an agricultural diversification project which included quinoa and led to the development of the first ‘European’ varieties of quinoa, Carmen and Atlas. Quinoa is also being grown in Africa and the Indian subcontinent.
But why all this global interest in quinoa? Although quinoa had for years been steadily expanding into world markets and researchers’ laboratories, the global trend towards healthy eating, vegetarianism and the movement against genetically modified foods were also factors that contributed to boosting its popularity. None of this would have happened, however, if quinoa did not have something special to offer, and it clearly does.
Quinoa contains higher levels of vitamins B and C than wheat.
One of the main properties of quinoa is its high protein content. According to Wikipedia, ‘quinoa has an exceptional balance of proteins, fats and carbohydrates (mainly starch). The protein it contains is also rich in amino acids including lysine, which is important for brain development, and arginine and histidine, which are essential for development during infancy. It is also rich in methionine and cysteine, minerals such as iron, calcium and phosphorous, and vitamins, but low in fat, making it a good complement to foods made from other cereals and legumes such as green beans. The average protein content of quinoa is 16%, but can be as high as 23%, which is more than double that of any cereal. Its protein content is therefore close to the proportion established by FAO for human nutrition. Fat content is between 4 and 9%, half of which is linoleic acid, a fatty acid essential in the human diet. It can be eaten by people with celiac disease, as it contains no gluten’. Also noteworthy is the fact that quinoa contains higher levels of vitamins B and C than wheat.
Another important feature of quinoa is that it can be eaten in a variety of ways; as a grain, flour, flakes, etc. Andean communities also use it for medicinal purposes, for healing wounds, reducing swelling and disinfecting. The plant is used as forage for livestock, and it is used industrially in food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical products. No less important is the fact that quinoa can be grown in very diverse, even extreme, climates and ecological niches.
2013 was declared the International Year of Quinoa by the United Nations.
Thanks to its exceptional properties, quinoa has been heralded as a ‘superfood’ on world markets, and 2013 was declared the International Year of Quinoa by the United Nations. Chefs the world over use it as an ingredient in salads and desserts or as a substitute for rice in main-course dishes, and its 100 plus varieties and diverse presentations are feted by food lovers. Even NASA considered using it in preparing its astronauts’ diets.
As a result of this well-deserved global interest, the world’s two leading quinoa producers, Bolivia and Peru, have seen an increase both in production and in the area dedicated to this crop. According to the report published in 2014 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Latin American Integration Association (ALADI) on trends and the outlook for the global quinoa trade (Tendencias y Perspectivas del Comercio Internacional de Quinoa), ‘World trade in quinoa amounted to around 135 million dollars in 2012’; ‘82.4% of world exports come from [...] three Andean countries: Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. Other important exporters are the United States (9.8%) and the European Union (7.5%), although the bulk of sales in these two cases are re-exports’; ‘over half of world quinoa exports are to the United States (53%). In second place, although a long way behind, is Canada, accounting for 15% of world imports. They are followed by France (8%), the Netherlands (4%), Germany (4%), ALADI (3%), Australia (3%) and the United Kingdom (2%)’.
It is, however, perhaps the sales figures expressed in current terms in the report that give the best insight into the boom in the quinoa trade. Quinoa sales by Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru soared from ‘700,000 dollars in 1992 to 111 million in 2012, a cumulative annual increase of 28.8%’. Figures for the volume of quinoa sold also highlight the trend of expansion of the quinoa market, rising from ‘600 tonnes in 1992 to 37,000 tonnes in 2012, a cumulative annual increase of 22.8%’.
Another significant trend is the evolution of world quinoa prices, which ‘remained relatively stable between 1992 and 2007, within the range of 1.1 to 1.3 dollars per kilo. In the following two years, prices skyrocketed, reaching 2.9 dollars a kilo in 2009. Subsequently, it stabilised again, ending the period analysed (2012) at around 3 dollars a kilo’.
In 2013 the price of quinoa rose from 3 dollars to 6 dollars a kilo, the highest price on record for the Andean seed.
However, a look at more recent data not included in the above-mentioned report, reveals that in 2013 the price of quinoa rose from 3 dollars to 6 dollars a kilo, the highest price on record for the Andean seed. In 2014, the price dropped to 5 dollars, and this year it has declined further, falling to below 4.50 dollars a kilo. The soaring prices were probably due to the declaration of 2013 as International Year of Quinoa, and the fall in price in 2014 to higher production not only in Bolivia and Peru, but also in other countries.
Although the world’s leading quinoa producer has traditionally been Bolivia, Peru has been steadily increasing its production capacity. In fact, Peru’s National Statistics Institute (INE) has reported that for the period from January to May of this year (2015), the country marketed 12,454 tonnes of quinoa at a value of 52.2 million dollars, while in the same period Bolivia marketed 9,248 tonnes, amounting to 47.1 million dollars. If this trend is maintained, Peru will overtake Bolivia as the world’s leading quinoa producer.
A characteristic of the smallholders in Peru’s Puno region is that they use traditional seeds and ‘organic’ production methods, that is, they do not use chemical fertilisers or pesticides.
The cultivation of quinoa in Peru is characterised by some distinctive features. For example, it is essentially carried out by Andean smallholder farmers, who usually sow an average of two or three hectares and produce around 15 tonnes of grain each. This is the case in the Altiplano region of Puno, where Peru’s quinoa production is concentrated, with 82% of the total area sown in 2012. This characteristic is shared with Bolivia, where there are estimated to be around 70,000 smallholder farmers producing quinoa. Another characteristic of the smallholders in Peru’s Puno region is that they use traditional seeds and ‘organic’ production methods, that is, they do not use chemical fertilisers or pesticides. On the Peruvian coast, however, farmers who have recently started to grow quinoa use industrial methods and seeds specially adapted to the warmer climate in the coastal regions, and all the grain they produce is for export.
It would be logical to assume that Puno’s smallholder farmers have benefited from rising world quinoa prices. In actual fact, it is the exporters who have done well out of it. Last year, for example, while growers got an average of PEN 2.60 per kilo of quinoa, exporters sold the same kilo for PEN 12.60. Why does this happen? It has a lot to do with the small scale of production. The fact that quinoa is grown by a large number of independent smallholder producers who are not organised into associations means that they have no negotiating power and are unable to put pressure on buyers to secure better conditions for the sale of their produce. The case of Bolivia highlights this: although quinoa is also produced by many smallholder farmers, they are able to get 70% of the export price because they are better organised. Another factor is Puno’s lack of quinoa processing capacity. With just two small processing plants in the region, most of the quinoa is taken to Arequipa or Lima to be processed and then exported by one of the 39 registered export companies.
Processing essentially involves drying, threshing and removing the saponins. Quinoa has a coating of saponins which give it a bitter taste if eaten before they are removed. Far from being a waste product, however, saponin, a toxic glycoside, is a very useful byproduct, with potential industrial applications. Indigenous people use it for personal hygiene purposes and household cleaning.
The smallholder farmers are not organised into associations and so lack the resources required to seek the technical assistance they need for their cultivation processes.
The characteristics and demands of world trade mean that quinoa must comply with certain requirements, including homogeneity, certification and sanitary conditions. The quinoa produced in Peru does not, however, always meet these requirements. Last year (2014), ten containers holding approximately 200 tonnes of quinoa were rejected and returned by the United States because traces of pesticide were detected in the grain. The quinoa was from the Majes Valley in Arequipa. The reason for this incident lies once again in the fact that the smallholder farmers are not organised into associations and so lack the resources required to seek the technical assistance they need for their cultivation processes.
Farmers and their families had diversified their eating habits to include foods such as rice and noodles, although this was to the detriment of the nutritional quality of their diet, as they were replacing proteins (nutritional foods) with carbohydrates (energy foods).
The fact that the world’s leading quinoa producers, Bolivia and Peru, are neighbours creates some curious trade dynamics. Until recently, Bolivian quinoa was smuggled into Peru to be exported as Peruvian produce or to meet domestic demand, as practically all Peru’s quinoa was exported. Recently, however, it is Peruvian quinoa that is entering Bolivia to be marketed at low prices. While some Bolivian producers accuse Peruvians of putting their quinoa on the Bolivian market to force them to lower their prices, others claim that Bolivian traders are buying Peruvian quinoa, because it is cheaper, and then mixing it with Bolivian grain to boost their profits. These trade disputes reached a climax in November 2014, when the Bolivian authorities confiscated two lorries carrying 23 tonnes of Peruvian quinoa at the Peru-Bolivia border and ordered it to be incinerated.
The problems of quinoa production do not end here. A study conducted in 2013 on this subject in the province of Ácora in Puno, revealed important findings. The first was that the consumption of quinoa by the growers themselves had fallen from between 2.5 and 5 kg per person in 2008 to 0 to 3 kg per person in 2013. It also found that the farmers and their families had diversified their eating habits to include foods such as rice and noodles, although this was to the detriment of the nutritional quality of their diet, as they were replacing proteins (nutritional foods) with carbohydrates (energy foods). It is very likely that this development is mirrored in other Andean quinoa-growing communities. If so, high quinoa prices will be creating a worrying trend which will result in nutritional deficiencies in these communities, with farmers preferring to sell all the quinoa they produce to boost their income, rather than consume it themselves.
Although quinoa’s potential as a nutritious food is undeniable, there are a number of problems involved in its production.
In spite of all the publicity generated by the Peruvian Government during the International Year of Quinoa and since then, technical support is sorely lacking at the bottom of the production chain.
The artisanal form of cultivation, which has ensured its survival for hundreds of years, is an impediment to the reliable production that the US market, for example, requires to stabilise demand and prices. In spite of all the publicity generated by the Peruvian Government during the International Year of Quinoa and since then, technical support is sorely lacking at the bottom of the production chain.
Peruvian farmers in the Andean area, the traditional quinoa growers, are not getting a decent price for their output. Furthermore, the little extra income they do earn encourages them to increase their quinoa production, displacing other traditional crops essential to their food security, and to sell all the quinoa they grow, which adversely affects the nutritional balance of their diet.
Rising prices have made quinoa unaffordable for many local consumers in Andean countries which, as mentioned above, exacerbates the already unstable food security situation of low-income households in rural and urban areas in Andean countries.
Whatever the future holds for quinoa on world markets, it is important for quinoa-producing countries to guarantee domestic consumption and ensure that the ancestral dietary and ecological balance of indigenous communities is not altered.