Trade in quinoa, the traditional Andean cereal loved by ethical foodies, has been accused of driving poverty in the region. In 2013, a Guardian article argued that rising prices, driven by western demand for the “super grain”,
Trade in quinoa, the traditional Andean cereal loved by ethical foodies, has been accused of driving poverty in the region. In 2013, a Guardian article argued that rising prices, driven by western demand for the “super grain”, meant poor people in the region could no longer afford to buy quinoa and that trade was “driving poverty” and putting food security at risk.
However, a new study published in May by the International Trade Centre (ITC), the joint agency of the UN and World Trade Organisation based in Geneva, found the opposite was the case in Peru: high quinoa prices in fact improved the welfare of poor rural communities. Indeed, as prices fell in 2014-15 – because of increased competition from larger, more intensive farms on the coast producing at a lower cost – farmer incomes also fell and their families’ nutrition worsened.
Understanding both the risks and benefits of trade’s contribution to food security is important. The UN has described trade as “the means for implementation” for achieving the sustainable development goals, in particular for achieving food security.
A misconception was developing about trade’s contribution to food security and it was clear data was needed to shed light on the issue. ITC, which is providing training to farmers in Peru, teamed up with US agricultural economists Marc Bellemare and Seth Gitter to measure the impact of quinoa price changes on the welfare of the country’s indigenous Aymara and Quechua communities in Puno and Cusco, the primary quinoa producing areas in the Peruvian high plain.
The data shows that as prices rose between 2004 and 2013, both producers and consumers in the region benefited financially from the trade. Quinoa farmers, who are among the poorest people in Peru, saw a 46% increase in their welfare over this period, measured by the value of all goods and services consumed by the household.
Price rises didn’t negatively affect local consumers either; they benefited thanks to the boost to the economy from higher prices. Furthermore, in the Puno region of Peru, quinoa only makes up 4% of a typical Peruvian household’s expenditure on food, according to research from Andrew Stevens of the University of California. Stevens says globalisation is increasing diversity of food choices and tastes for traditionally culturally important foods will become less important for nutrition.
And there were benefits for women. According to government figures, almost 40% of quinoa farmers in Peru are women. In addition to tilling their plots, women are also the main caregivers in the family. The “care economy” of looking after children and the old is invisible, ie unpaid.
Manuela Ramos Movement, an NGO promoting women’s rights, reports that men in the Peruvian Andes spend approximately half the amount of time as women on caring work while having more access to jobs earning cash. The quinoa boom was therefore a welcome income boost to female farmers who had little in the way of alternative income sources.
Quinoa isn’t problem free, however. Looking at the environment, trade has resulted in a reduction of diversity of quinoa production into 20 or so improved varieties. The market demands mainly light coloured, large grain quinoa. In the altiplano, subsistence farmers have cultivated up to 60 different varieties, which in future may offer a way to adapt to climate change. Creating new consumer demand for these traditional varieties is one way to increase in-situ conservation of traditional varieties.
During the period of the study, the negative impacts of climate change were seen. Light rains known as “veranillo” were 45 days late and farmers faced unseasonal hail and frost that destroyed their potato crops.
As a way to mitigate climate and market risks, farmers in the Andes traditionally carry out mixed farming based partly on recently recovered Inca farming systems. Raised beds and communally managed rotation help to maintain soil fertility and provide a diversity of crops. However, the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) has reported that high quinoa prices have incentivised farmers towards bad practices like overuse of pesticides and not respecting crop rotations.
Although Bolivia and Peru still have 80% market share of world quinoa trade, the grain is also now grown in other countries such as the US. As prices fell during 2014-15, farmers reduced their own quinoa consumption and replaced it with less nutritious foods, namely potatoes. Furthermore, they had begun to sell off their livestock to pay for basic needs.
The ITC study makes a number of recommendations to improve food security and empower women. First, providing incentives to smallholders to purchase metal silos would enable them to store their quinoa safely for the day that prices do rise. Second, farmers should continue to differentiate their quinoa in the market as being organic, bio-diverse and supporting women’s livelihoods. These attributes build value and avoid having to compete as much on price with larger farms.
More broadly, economic diversification for women is needed. Current pilots that could be scaled up include initiatives for producing handicrafts and regional schemes paying farmers for producing heritage varieties of quinoa.
This new analysis provides evidence that international trade can improve food security. However, smallholders are in a precarious position, exposed to environmental and market risks. The scale of the challenges facing farmers on the altiplano is exacerbated by climate change, which is reducing productivity of agriculture across much of the developing world.
Investing in infrastructure and knowledge is needed to support climate resilience in smallholder agriculture and diversification opportunities to empower women. Shutting some of the poorest people in the world out of premium price markets is the last thing consumers in rich countries should think of doing.