It was about three years ago when I first heard of the the South American grain, quinoa (for the uninitiated, it’s pronounced KEEN-wah). Supposedly it has an amazing taste and is packed with more nutrients than rice or corn. There are many reasons why I haven’t tried it yet. The supermarkets at which I generally shop (you do shop at more than one store, right?) don’t carry it yet. At least not in economical packages (I will NOT spend $4+ on a box that feeds two).
But there is another reason why I don’t eat this new wunderfood. Eating it may be good for you, but it’s bad for South American farmers. It’s a supply and demand problem. As demand increases, if the supply doesn’t increase by an equal amount, the price goes up. Since there is only limited acreage available in the Andes mountains where the crop was first grown, there has been very little growth in supply compared the the phenomenal growth in demand over the past few years.
Attempts have been made to grow quinoa in other parts of the world. There has been some success in Australia and Europe, but in the US the crop is susceptible to leaf miner. To date, the crop still grows best in its native area of South America.
Another issue that complicates the growth of supply of quinoa is the fact that the crop resists mechanization of the harvest. The seed pods vary in time needed until optimal harvest from plant to plant and even from pod to pod on the plant itself. There is a small window that the seed can be harvested from the time it reaches maturity until the time the seed pods shatter and scatter the seed to the wind. So the seed has to be harvested by hand much the same way that fruit is.
When these factors combine, the cause for the tripling in price of this crop over the last decade is apparent.
What Does Higher Quinoa Crop Prices Mean For Farmers?
Higher prices are a good thing for the farmers that grow them, right? In most cases, yes it is. Higher price means more profit which means higher standard of living. On the downside, it also means that as the farmers get more money, they spend more money driving up the price of other goods and leading to inflation. This in turn lowers the standard of living again. As the price of quinoa rises and brings the price of other foods up with it, farmers growing the crop are forced to sell more of what they would have held back for themselves to afford other staples.
Economists are divided whether or not increased global consumption of quinoa is a net benefit to the farmers that grow it. To me, it seems much more common sense. Simply ask yourself: what would I do if the cost of my food tripled? Chances are, you would eat less of it. Evidence is already starting to suggest that this is true. Andean quinoa farmers are struggling and eating less of this crop.
Food security is the term for a populace’s ability to afford to eat. When food prices rise, food security decreases for the people that depend on that particular food. Food and wellness are large parts of the two lowest portions of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As such, rising food prices tend to have a destabilizing effect on a populace. Hence the link between food and security.
When you eat quinoa grown in South America, you are contributing to the decline in food security for half a continent. Quinoa may be a superfood, but let’s try eating something else and allow everyone to eat.
Do you eat quinoa? Are you worried about what increased demand is doing to the economics of the growing region and the environment as a whole?