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Quinoa Quandary--Is Buying Fair Trade Enough?

As the world develops a taste for the amazing super seed from the Andes, the indigenous people who have traditionally relied on it for sustenance are finding it harder to afford.

Pronounced keen-wah, the superfood known as “a mother grain” in the Andes where its been harvested by Incas for 5,000 years, and “gold of the Incas” by others, has been attracting some attention in the health world for its nutritious and versatile culinary offerings.  

The varieties are endless--red, black, white, yellow and orange kinds used in pastas, polenta, cakes, biscuits, soups, salads, burgers, pilafs---I even saw “cowboy chili” at Vons the other day featuring key ingredient, quinoa.

Packing a pleasant crunchy texture and nutty flavor when toasted, quinoa’s easy to prepare and store like other grains, though is the seed of a leafy plant similar to Swiss chard, which can also be eaten.

It’s been praised by NASA, survivalists and foodies alike, and for some very good reasons.

Virtually unparalleled in the health food world for containing high amounts of protein, fiber, nutrients and nine essential amino acids while being cholesterol-free, gluten-free, vegan, kosher and almost always organic, this ubiquitous grain that’s really a seed is becoming a staple at households of conscientious shoppers who are in the know.

Unfortunately, this revolution is happening at the expense of indigenous people who, after relying on it as a staple of their own due to its ability to grow at the lofty altitudes where few other plants can, are unable to afford what was once cheap, plentiful and readily available.

In many countries in South America, socioeconomic inequalities are resulting in malnourishment and extreme poverty at extreme rates.

Food vouchers were given to farmers earning $5 harvestiing sugar and coffee in Guatemala where, despite the having largest economy in Central America, almost half the population was chronically malnourished, reported Reuters in a 2011 article.

Bolivian President Evo Morales "blames capitalism and global warming for steep food price increases in Bolivia, and warns that severe frosts could bring famine in the Andean highlands” in the same article, written by Gustavo Palencia.

These are the same highlands where Quinoa is grown for production, and where it has grown forever, naturally providing one of the most optimal sources of nourishment available anywhere. Descendents of the same people it once help thrive, who still grow it, are now turning to a cheaper diet of processed foods.   
As a huge consumer of quinoa, I felt I was personally to blame when I stumbled upon the plight of people worlds away from my own. Just like with coffee and sugar, I was devastated to learn what I was supporting.

Finding a moral middle ground by employing the same rationalization I have used as an inmmeasurate consumer of lattes and exotic superfoods like yerba mate, cacao, goji and acai berries, I figured there must be a Fair Trade alternative.

And, of course, there is.

One such company is ANAPQUI, which is a large quinoa cooperative consisting of 1,100 members from two indigenous cultures in eight regions--the Quechua and the Aymara. Its mission is to “improve the living standard of quinoa producers of the Bolivian Highlands”, according to its web site.  

Another, Alter Eco, sells a variety of Fair Trade goods as proof that alternative business methods are plausible, and that business can diminish economcial disparities plaguing numerous nations instead of increasing them.

Because just like buying, eating and shopping habits--and basically all aspects of overindulgent lifestyles--can cause a trickledown effect of starvation and suffering in places we have never been, to people we have never met, consumer choices can also make a positive impact.

Health food advocates are constantly telling us that many modern day afflictions are caused by food and therein lies the cure--we have eaten ourselves unhealthy, and we can eat ourselves back to health. Perhaps we can do the same for Bolivian farmers, and other marginalized people around the globe.

By supporting Fair Trade, the tide can not only be turned but their lot, improved. Maybe they can once again afford to eat their own mother grain.

Because as famous foodie, author, chef and TV host Anothony Bourdain has pointed out, food is culture and as many others have figured out, the revolution starts before the food ever hits the plate--at the markets, shops and co-ops where hunger meets buying power.

The fates of entire cultures rely not only on the whims of grumbling stomachs, but educated minds and compassionate hearts. Conscious consumers may have the biggest impact on the quinoa community at large. 

Camille June 11, 2012 at 06:42 PM
An important point that might have been implied but was not clearly stated in the commentary here is one of the factors driving prices of quinoa up for Bolivians. The demand and profits from sales of quinoa as an export are one of the main reasons why Bolivians in the country are eating less quinoa now--it is more profitable as an export business (partially due to lack of trade protections), so rising prices internationally encourage export versus production for national consumption. This seems to pose a problem for the Bolivian population as a whole that even buying "fair trade" can't solve, though at least the cooperatives or organizations representing growers can support quinoa producers in some way.
Nicole Charky June 12, 2012 at 04:58 PM
Is this a Bolivian problem or do you think that other countries in South America experience the rising prices for quinoa?
Marjorie E. Leventry June 13, 2012 at 02:25 AM
Our company,Inca Organics, imports bulk quinoa from Ecuador. We began in 1998 and work with a foundation that started growing organic quinoa in central Ecuador to overcome the malnutrition rate for children under 5 at 74%. When we started most Ecuadorians did not eat quinoa. The "high class" Ecuadorians only ate it infrequently in soup. They told the indigenous people that quinoa was dirty pig food, so they rarely ate it too. The high malnutrition rate was due to the fact that the indigenous were trying to eat our "American foods" and couldn't afford them. The foundation showed them how to grow quinoa, cook quinoa and when we purchase the quinoa we only purchase 2/3's of their crop. They are advised to keep the other 1/3 to eat or sell it on the national market. After 5 years of this the malnutrition rate for the kids fell to 24%. Now we see quinoa sold in the markets and supermarkets and the wealthy people are eating it as well as the indigenous. It has been remarkable for us to see this transition. We pay the farmers about 65% more than the Fair Trade price and have raised the farmers' income significantly over the poverty level. They are able to use this income to send their children to school, build cement block houses with windows instead of the mud "chozas" where they now house animals that they are also able to purchase. We are a social business and 62% of our revenues go directly to the farmers. For more info go to www.incaorganics.com.
Skatie February 21, 2013 at 12:45 AM
I buy fair trade quinoa from AlterEco, but I've had to ask myself whether that's simply my own way of justifying the fact that I continue to buy it even when I know of the problems that have arisen. And in thinking over whether I should continue buying quinoa, I find myself mulling over some hard questions: Is buying fair trade better than not buying it at all? What would happen to their economy if we stopped buying it altogether and the market dried up? Would it help, or would it be far worse now that life in these countries has been so drastically altered by world demand? How can we justify our food choices when they not only hurt the very people providing that food for us, but denies them one of the only sources of nutrition available to them? Is there even a right answer anymore? More and more I'm convinced that if we can't find it locally, then we shouldn't eat it. It's difficult, but doable. It gets problematic with grains, though, especially since our family is gluten-free due to Celiac disease. How do we work that out? And our income is below the US poverty level, so buying fair trade is even more of a hardship than paying regular prices -- it's easy to find it cheaper, and so tempting to save that money for other necessary things -- but I'm willing to make that sacrifice. Wouldn't it be terrible, though, to learn that such sacrifices are all for nothing? Why is making the right choice also the wrong choice? I just want to know what I should do!

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