The South American quinoa dilemma

The United Nations has dubbed 2013 the ‘International Year of Quinoa’. In case you’ve never sampled quinoa, it’s an ancient Andean-grown grain either added to soups and salads or made into flour for baking purposes. When cooked it has a nutty flavour and it’s packed with healthy protein. The Western world has welcomed quinoa onto its dinner plates and it has joined the ranks of the ‘superfoods’, thanks to its nutritional values.Quinoa is largely produced in Bolivia and Peru and its export market is booming. International consumers are largely based in the US and Europe, but also in parts of Asia and Africa. Earlier this month, a forum was held in Beijing for Bolivian producers and entrepreneurs to promote quinoa exports to China, which could dramatically increase export volumes from the Andean region.

Quinoa no longer affordable in Bolivia and Peru

It’s wonderful to see such diverse nations fusing their cuisines, and Bolivian and Peruvian farmers are sure to benefit from this international growth. However, as the appetite for quinoa grows worldwide, it is becoming an expensive commodity for local consumers.

Quinoa is a staple food in the diet of many South Americans, providing vital nutrients especially to the Andean Altiplano population. The traditional Bolivian diet is simple but healthy and Bolivians believe meals should be prepared with care and with locally cultivated ingredients (much like the popular ‘slow food’ movement in the UK). In fact in 2002, McDonald’s closed its doors in Bolivia after failing to catch on with locals, demonstrating their ‘anti-fast food’ sentiment.

But if the poorer sectors of the Bolivian and Peruvian populace can no longer afford quinoa, it will inevitably lead to changes in their diet and may have a detrimental impact on their health. This could be disastrous for these poor South American countries with, already high, levels of poverty-related malnutrition.

International quinoa cultivation

One of the aims of the International Year of Quinoa is ‘to generate medium and long-term programmes and projects for the sustainable development of the cultivation of quinoa nationally and globally.’

At present, more than half of the world quinoa supply comes from the Andean farmers in Bolivia and Peru, but with its increase in global popularity, production is spreading to the US, Kenya and India.

In the same week as the Beijing forum, the BBC published an article about the first UK-based commercial quinoa producer. Plant science PhD student, Stephen Jones, who is behind the British Quinoa Company, believes quinoa to be a ‘grain of the future’ and he looks set to be the first person to commercially cultivate British quinoa.

An ethical dilemma – should we eat Andean quinoa?

The case study of Andean quinoa highlights just some of the ethical considerations surrounding the globalisation of our diets. Do we, as consumers, have a moral obligation to explore the impact of our internationally sourced foods? When we smugly tuck into our quinoa superfood salad, should we be thinking about the knock-on impact for the Andean population? Should we consider whether we are unwittingly damaging the health of those in Bolivia and Peru simply by wanting a diverse and healthy diet ourselves? Perhaps the home-grown varieties will be the answer in the future, but surely that will damage the Andean export potential and limit economic growth? Perhaps we should just play it safe and stick to our own locally grown, traditional staples?

21st century dinner dilemmas.



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