The economics of quinoa: superfoods’ dark side

Being “healthy” has taken on a whole new meaning in the twenty-first century. Simply eating fresh foods and reducing our intake of so-called “junk” foods no longer suffices in the bid for ultimate health. The rise of superfoods has accelerated quicker than we ever could have imagined over the past few years, with a variety of seemingly unpronounceable, exotic foods taking on reputations that would have us all believe they can magically cure us of any form of ill-health. At the forefront of this, is quinoa (keen-wa), a seemingly humble seed that is in fact a complete amino-rich protein, and thus a new favourite of vegetarians and vegans. If you had asked anyone what it was a mere ten years ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find someone who knew. Yet, as of late, it has been elevated to a staple on the shelf of just about every supermarket and many households, due to its superfood halo.

As simple economics dictates, as global demand for quinoa has risen due to its superfood status, the price has quickly followed. Since 2006, the price of quinoa has tripled, due to excessive demand creating shortages that have pushed up its value. In these circumstances, there has never been as much incentive for Bolivian and Peruvian farmers to produce quinoa as the present. However, with quinoa continually becoming more expensive, the traditional consumers of this food can no longer keep up. With the price thrice what it used to be just ten years ago, many Bolivian and Peruvian farmers prefer to sell this nutritious powerhouse, rather than consuming it themselves, due to the greater profit opportunity associated with doing so. It is more profitable to sell all of their quinoa and purchase cheaper, Westernised alternatives, such as pasta, bread and rice. This has sparked great concern around potential nutrient deficiencies and unbalanced diets in these regions. The effect of this is palpable, as is evidenced by the fact that national quinoa consumption in Bolivia fell by 34 per cent from 2006 to 2011.

Some argue that the increasing price is in fact beneficial for South American quinoa farmers since it boosts their incomes, subsequently exposing them to many opportunities unavailable previously, like education for their children. However, the effect on health outcomes is still very much the same as the former argument. As farmers in these regions become richer, their demand of “higher-status” processed food increases. This is accompanied by falling domestic demand for products deemed to be inferior, including peasant foods such as quinoa. Thanks to extreme degrees of advertising allowing the Western brands to penetrate all levels of society, consuming Western products like Coca-Cola and McDonalds is associated with wealth in many under-developed countries of the world, such as Bolivia and Peru. Despite being outrageously unhealthy, being able to afford such foods demands respect and social status in these corners of the world, and accordingly, as farmers profit handsomely from quinoa production, demand for these brands is booming like never before.

The huge demand for quinoa has also generated environmental concerns, irrespective of how we class the effect on producers’ incomes and health. With farmers in Bolivia and Peru attempting to boost their production to meet global demand, they obviously require more resources. The most significant of these is farmland, as the doubling of quinoa crops in Bolivia within the past six years exemplifies. However, the increasing use of machinery is jeopardising the fragile, dry soil’s fertility, the reduction in llama farming (in favour of quinoa) is reducing the availability of manure needed to stabilise the soil, and the copious amount of water required for quinoa to flourish is not sustainable. As farmers try to take advantage of the current quinoa craze, they unknowingly threaten the longevity of this economic powerhouse and source of income in their home countries.

Although these issues may not seem directly economic, in the long term, once water runs out and fields become arid, reversing the damage caused by unsustainable production processes will involve the application of many economic principles. For example, the government will need to adjust its spending, in order to nurture the growth of new industries within their nation and ensure the welfare of former quinoa farmers now left unable to afford life’s basic necessities.

How to support these farmers once the quinoa boom ends, and the world moves onto a new superfood, is another burning question that requires an economic solution. When all that many South American farmers can and will produce is quinoa, we cannot ignore that once the hype surrounding it dies down, they will be left with dwindling incomes, inventories of quinoa that no-one will buy at a fair price and little knowledge on how to produce something else. Governments need to plan ahead for this inevitability, and we, as consumers, should be conscious of this whenever we jump on board a new fad.

No matter how we spin it, the economic influence that developed nations (such as our own) hold in the global marketplace can wreak havoc on those with little power, whether it be in regards to health, the environment or sustainability. When the next quinoa of the world emerges, perhaps think about who you may be hurting most before buying into the fad.