We’ve been hearing a lot about quinoa lately. While US consumers prize it as a delicious ‘super-food,’ there is growing anxiety about the impact of the quinoa boom in the Andes, and particularly Bolivia, the world’s top producing country. The media has focused primarily on the fact that global demand is driving up the price of quinoa, placing it beyond the reach of poor Bolivians—even of quinoa farmers themselves—leaving them to consume nutritionally vacuous, but cheap, refined wheat products such as bread and pasta. By this logic, some suggest, northern consumers should boycott the ‘golden grain’ to depress its price and make it accessible once again.
Others point out that the impoverished farmers of Bolivia’s highlands are at long last getting a fair price for their crop—one of the few crops adapted to their arid, high altitude environment. In this view, global markets are finally “working” for peasants, and a consumer boycott would only hurt the hemisphere’s poorest farmers.
In short, the debate has largely been reduced to the invisible hand of the marketplace, in which the only options for shaping our global food system are driven by (affluent) consumers either buying more or buying less. It’s the same logic that makes us feel like we’ve done our civic duty by buying a pound of fair trade coffee. This isn’t to dismiss the many benefits of fair trade or other forms of ethical consumption, but the so-called quinoa quandary demonstrates the limits of consumption-driven politics. Because whichever way you press the lever (buy more/buy less) there are bound to be negative consequences, particularly for poor farmers in the Global South. To address the problem we have to analyze the system itself, and the very structures that constrain consumer and producer choices.
The rising demand for quinoa is indeed contributing to higher prices, which have tripled in the last six years. But even more troubling than the price impact on Bolivian quinoa consumption, is the impact on land use. Quinoa production is expanding at a break-neck pace in one of the most vulnerable ecosystems on the planet: the fragile soils and native pastures of the Bolivian high plateau (Altiplano). These lands were once carefully managed with fallow (rest) periods of eight years or more. Now many areas are in near-constant production, threatening to destroy the soil’s fertility. The llama herds that have provided manure to fertilize subsistence quinoa plots for millennia have dwindled to make way for large quinoa monocultures. Government programs are doling out tractors, and this mechanization is allowing for the cultivation of larger and larger fields.
In a public ceremony in early February, President Evo Morales presented 65 John Deere tractors to communities in the highland department of Oruro to promote the expansion of quinoa. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) announcement that 2013 would be named the International Year of Quinoa goes hand in glove with this big push for mechanization.
Meanwhile, sand storms are increasingly common in the southern Altiplano, an indicator of the progressive desertification of the region. Desertification—characterized by saline soils, loss of nutrients, erosion and decreasing yields—is triggered by the increased mechanization of farming practices, as well as a disruption of the delicate balance between pastoralism and agriculture. Whereas quinoa was once grown primarily on small hillside terraces, it is now moving into large areas formerly dedicated to llama grazing. In so doing, it is wiping out the high biodiversity of native pastures, shrublands ( tholares) and wetlands ( bofedales)—a diversity necessary for this system’s sustainability and resilience to climate change.
So while no one would argue that Bolivian farmers shouldn’t get a good price for their crop, these trends cannot be ignored—or left up to global market forces. Perhaps most tragic of all is that this boom (and booms are always followed by a bust) is leading the poorest, most vulnerable farmers to degrade their own environment—i.e. the material basis for their very survival and cultural identity—in the name of short-term food security.