In a classic case of media pump-and-dump in little more than a decade Quinoa - the wonder grain from the high Andes - has gone from being lauded as a super-food to being vilified.
It was not so much quinoa itself that was the target of the backlash.
It is a genuine miracle food which has been cultivated for millennia on the desolate high plains of Bolivia and Peru. As long ago as 1993 NASA declared it as coming closer than anything else in the plant and animal kingdom to supplying “all the essential life-sustaining nutrients”.
Instead it was the voracious demand such praise stimulated among health-conscious consumers in wealthy nations that media reports rounded on. This was blamed for causing a host of social ills in Andean producer countries, even including one wild claim the new food fad was “starving Bolivia”.
Many are left with the impression that eating quinoa in the wealthy North was robbing food off the table in parts of the Global South.
But it wasn’t. Research shows such claims were wide of the mark. UInfortunately making people aware that the record has been corrected is often a challenge, especially when the erroneous story was so compelling.
The biggest mistake was to assume that quinoa was a staple as well as traditional food in Bolivia and Peru. When prices started to soar around the beginning of the decade due to surging international demand, the grain did become more expensive for poor consumers in Bolivia and Peru. But the impact was marginal, given the small role it played in the national diet of both countries.
US researcher Andrew Stevens found that even in the quinoa-growing region of Puno in Peru, the grain made up just four per cent of the average household food spend, too small for the foreign driven price spike to impact household nutrition in a significant way.
Bolivia’s government currently estimates that annual per capita consumption of quinoa is just 1.5 kilos, and that actually represents an increase from a decade ago. The charge that demand for quinoa caused hunger in Bolivia has no basis in fact. All through the grain’s moment in the international spotlight the country has consistently managed to reduce malnutrition rates.
“If quinoa was the main part of the diet I would be concerned about the surge in price. If Americans started to consume teff, which Ethopians use to make bread and is a huge part of their diet, then Ethopia could potentially be harmed. But quinoa is not that story,” says economist Seth Gitter, an associate professor at Towson University in the US.
Along with Marc Bellemare of the University of Minnesota, he published research in 2016 for the International Trade Centre (ITC), a multi-lateral agency linked to the UN, on the impact of the quinoa trade on the welfare of Peruvian communities. Instead of causing harm it concluded this trade “contributes to improved livelihoods of the rural poor, mostly women, in Peru”.
Quinoa producer organisations in Bolivia echo those findings. “The traditional quinoa producer is a poor, indigenous smallholder. The rise in quinoa prices meant these communities whose diet largely consisted of quinoa and llama meat were able to sell more of what they harvested for cash and with this buy fruit and vegetables,” says Paula Mejia of the Bolivian Chamber of Quinoa Exporters.
But crtics such as Galway-based chef JP McMahon who wroite about the issue in this paper are absolutely right to remind us that our food choices involve ethical decisions. Though quinoa is not necessarily the ethically dubious choice it was once painted as, its introduction into the global trade system has been turbulent. If wealthy consumers are going to buy quinoa they should demand to know exactly which sort of quinoa they are purchasing.
The spike in prices saw commercial farms in Peru’s coastal lowlands start to grow the grain. This produced a glut that drove down prices, which especially impacted the smaller traditional quinoa producers in the highlands whose financial margins are much thinner.
These traditional producers dismiss this commercial quinoa as a bland monoculture that threatens the grain’s extraordinary genetic diversity. “What we need to do is connect consumers in foreign markets with the traditional organic quinoa grower in the highlands,” says Nelson Pérez Paco, president of Bolivia’s national association of quinoa producers.
For Alexander Kasterine, head of the ITC’s trade and environment unit, the best outcome for traditional producers and conscientious consumers like Mr McMahon is increasingly available certified fairtrade quinoa:
“It would be perfect for an Irish chef to use these heritage varieties. It would be a win-win.”
Tom Hennigan writes for The Irish Times from South America