The economic effects of the quinoa fad on the Andean people

For centuries, indigenous peoples of the Andes were the only ones who could grow quinoa, but as the world demands more of it how will they cope?

A study by NASA in 1993 concluded that “While no single food can supply all the essential life-sustaining nutrients, quinoa comes as close as any other in the plant or animal kingdom.” But despite the early recognition, it took more than a decade since that report was published before quinoa broke into everyone’s kitchens and cookbooks.

Heavy media attention gave the grain the exposure it needed, and now, no diet or cleanse is without quinoa. In fact, its popularity rose so far that the UN branded 2013 as the international year of quinoa.

Economically the surge in popularity is also evident, as the price per kilogram exported by Peru and Bolivia more than tripled from the year 2000 to its peak in 2014. The rise in price might be beneficial for the economy, but it had undesirable consequences on the people who depended on it for nourishment, the indigenous populations of the Andes, which saw their staple crop gentrified and priced out of reach.

However, the effects of the rising demand for quinoa are not as drastic as the media played them out to be at times. In fact, the higher earnings for quinoa farmers signified an increase in their spending, 46% on average between 2004 and 2013, as opposed to the perceived wave of hunger that would strike Peruvian and Bolivian households as quinoa prices picked up.

The problem with quinoas newfound popularity lie elsewhere. The profitability in quinoa has driven more people into the business, now agro industrial companies are trying to participate. This means a more immediate danger to farmers, their lands and jobs threatened by large scale producers, the prices for the grain dropping below what they find profitable, a grim scenario all around.

Besides that, over 50 countries are now producing quinoa in their land, which naturally increases supply of the grain, and lowers prices. The price drop comes in stark contrast to the bonanza farmers experienced up to 2014, where profits peaked. It has farmers in Peru hoarding their produce as they hope for the price to climb again.

The situation at the moment is dire, the “Fairtrade” price of quinoa (the price at which the grain must be sold in order for the farmer to attain decent living standards) is more or less $2.60 per kilo, but its price in the current market is below $2.

Now, quinoa seems to no longer be able to provide farmers with sustenance, the people who grow it in the Andes cannot compete with agro industry or with foreign supply and what has been the regions staple food for centuries seems to move closer and closer to complete gentrification.

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