Quinoa: The Health Fad that is Starving the Cultivators

Quinoa: The Health Fad that is Starving the Cultivators

By Hwaa Irfan

The idea of ‘superfoods’ is an American marketing idea that works well in the promotion of new foods, that is foods that are packed with nutritional benefit, but are new to the Western world. Having looked at Acai Berries, which come under the said mentioned classification, we now turn to Quinoa.

Hailed as the perfect food for astronauts by NASA, because it is rich in protein, and contains all 9 essential amino acids, Quinoa is another poor man’s food that has hit the rich diets of the West. The Quninoa plant is of the Chenopodiaceae family of the plant kingdom which is known as epazote amongst other names in its country of origin. With a 7,000 year history making it an ancient food, Quinoa was cultivated during the times of the Incas. It was even considered a food of the gods, and worth its weight in gold, because of the stamina it gave to Inca warriors. Known as mastruço in Brazil, paico in Peru, and in Latin America, in general as epazote.

Growing to up to a metre in height, the red multi-branched stems produce clusters of small yellow flowers surrounded by sharp toothed leaves. The high seed production makes it a plant that spreads easily, and in the wrong environment can become invasive like a weed. For thousands of years Quinoa enjoyed a quiet life in its native terrain as a food and as a medicine utilizing the whole part with each part serving a different function according to it synergistic relationship. The indigenous peoples of South America have used it for:

-        Amazon (Tikuna) – Arthritis, expel worms, mild laxative

-        Bolivia  – Ajara, milled black quinoa was mixed with certain herbs and used a dressing to treat bone fractures.

-        Brazil – Angina, asthma, expel worms, flatulence, to promote sweating (detoxifies the body), infections of the upper respiratory tract, improve digestion

-        Piura – the leaves are used for intestinal flatulence, a mild laxative, insecticide, cramps, gout, haemorrhoids, parasite, and nervous disorders.

-        Yucatan – Asthma, chorea, excessive mucus, intestinal parasites

The Creoles use it as a cold medicine, and to expel worms (children). The Wayãpi use Quinoa for stomach problems, and internal haemorrhages caused by a fall.

This is just a summary, but one that demonstrates the importance of Quinoa to the earth keepers of South America. Today, in Bolivia, Quinoa is grown mainly by those who live in La Paz, Aroma and Gualberto Villaroel, in Oruro, in the region of Salinas de Garci Mendoza in the province of Ladislao Cabrera, as well as the Altiplano. In the Altiplano, Quinoa is considered as ancestral heritage along with the Altiplano. Following the harvesting of Quinoa during the times of Incas, a golden dish of Quinoa was offered to God Inti, and Quinoa was also used as form of currency in trade with the valleys of Cochabama, Chuquisaca, and Tarija.

Quinoa was in the past, and still is today, an important food, especially for the Andean dwellers. The grain is used for human consumption in various forms: Soups (mazamorras, lawa or “allphi”), stews (graneados, “phisara”, pesq’e). The flour is used in the preparation of steamed bread rolls known as K’ispiñas, muk’unas, phiri, pies and pastries. Beverages are also prepared with quinoa, such as chicha or “Q’usa”, soft drinks or “Ullphi”, juices, etc. In addition, the tender quinoa leaves are used as vegetables (llipccha or cchiwa). Quinoa is also used for feeding poultry and other animals.

Addition to the Western Diet

Recognized as a complete food by WHO, Quinoa not only contains more than all the 9 essential amino acids, it is considered a good substitute for milk and meat, With the food price crisis seeming not to end, a less profitable approach should be taken towards Quinoa as milk and meat prices continues to rise, and as a viable alternative to the meat and milk on the market that is a product of cloned cattle. This cholesterol-free grain does not form fats, is easy to digest, and is suitable for diabetics, and heart disease, a growing problem of the Western diet. Already gaining scientific ground in health benefits, Quinoa has proven successful in the prevention of breast cancer, and osteoporosis, for healing bones fractures, and other claims, but more importantly, Quinoa is a complete food, which over-rides the problem of deficiency especially for vegetarians, and other groups including the ill who require a special diet. It is adaptable as rice and pasta, sweet or sour, breakfast or main meal so given its importance in the human diet, fair trade from the producer to the consumer  is a serious undertaking that should be committed to.

Fair Trade?

What was once a national food, a part of the staple diet is no longer affordable to millions of native inhabitants of South America, as such, many are facing malnutrition. Yes, Western interest has generated income for the cultivators of Quinoa. Marketed as pulse, this farinaceous grain is versatile as an alternative for rice, added to salads, as a cereal and broths and casseroles Quinoa has become a main export tripling the price of Quinoa to the extent that the people cannot afford it with a 34% slump in local consumption  over the past 5 years. With one kilo of Quinoa now costs five times more than 1 kg of rice, children from the areas that grow Quinoa in Bolivia are already showing serious signs of malnutrition.  Even though the much respected Bolivian President, Evo Morales has promised a $10mn loan to help farmers grow more Quinoa for local consumption, is this the right strategy?  As Quinoa becomes increasingly naturalized in other parts of the world, the supply to the market becomes decentralized although it is questionable that Quinoa grown in the U.K., has the same nutritional, an medicinal value as that grown in its native Andes. In terms of world trade Bolivia is the top exporting country, followed by Peru and Ecuador.

Adriana Michal, publisher of Organic Wellness News, got curious, and decided to follow the trade trail of Quinoa from producer to consumer. Beginning with the main retail outlet, a U.S. based wholesaler of organic Quinoa that imports directly from Importer Inca Organics, which in turn is supplied by a group of cooperatives, ERPE in Ecuador. On the market shelf, a 725 gram of organic Quinoa, was priced at U.S.$ 8.89.

Step #1 – ERPE (a cooperative of 3, 000 Quinoa farmers) is in fact a non-profit organization with a focus on malnutrition, indigenous living standards. They sell quinoa to Sumak Life.

Step #2 – Sumak Life is another non-profit entity that cleans and packages Quinoa in Riobamba, Ecuador. They pay fees for the organic label, and fair trade certificates. They get 26 cents per pound (lb), for this task, before it is exported to France.

Step #3 – The fair trade organic product is exported to France from where the organic certified Quinoa is shipped to the U.K., and U.S.

Step #4 – Inca Organics a U.S. based company owned by Marjorie and Bob Leventry buy the organic certified Quinoa from Riobamba for 0.70 cents per pound (lb) from ERPE or Sumak Life.

Step #5 – Inca Organics pay for shipping  to U.S. U.K., and Canada, and they also pay insurance, and for warehousing (Quinoa has duty-free status). Inca sell the organic certified Quinoa to distributors at 0.87 cents per pound (lb).

Step #6 - On the market shelf, Bob’s Red Mill Natural Food’s sells a 725 gram of organic Quinoa, was priced at U.S.$ 8.89 making a 600% hike in price.

Step #7 – The farmers back in Ecuador get 7% of the profit!

Leah Dobkin tells us that buying Quinoa on bulk is better, and can be bought from anything to $1.59 per pound (white Quinoa) – $2.49 per pound (red Quinoa) from health food stores, which buy at 0.70 – 0.95 cents per pound of Quinoa in bulk! The price is cheaper from the health food stores because they buy direct from importers. Whilst back in Ecuador:

“Prices may increase abroad… here we have a set up price, but no protection for the farmer if the harvest goes wrong.” – Juan Perez Sarmiento, executive president of ERPE.

There are two issues here, the local price of Quinoa, and the price that farmers get for their harvest of Quinoa.  South Americans are noted for their ability to develop many varieties of a crop, with varieties of potatoes still unknown in the Northern Hemisphere. In Bolivia alone there are 5 types of Quinoa, each with their own growing climate and growing season. The variety that is exported is Royal Quinoa, with much scientific research from the 1970s that has explored and developed a variety known as Sajama that is easier to prepare for cooking being saponin free, and has a higher yield. If the nutritional and medicinal value is as high as older varieties, surely this along with others can be promoted for local consumption maintaining the Royal Quinoa for export purposes in the main, especially when local prices are determined by the global prices.

Undoubtedly, the price that farmers get for their exports must be raised, because as it is many have other jobs like mining in order to compensate their income. Besides it is unethical that those further along the Quinoa trade chain should profit, while the farmer (men and women are involved in the cultivation and harvesting), the family, and the community struggle to survive. By maintaining an all round sustainable situation, everyone benefits from the producer to the consumer. The consumer too has a role, by refusing to pay beyond a certain price after all supply is according to demand.

The National Association of Quinoa Farmers, ANAPQUI, have been working since 1983 towards improving the revenue of the farmers and their communities. Farmers who sell their harvest to ANAPQUI have received a better deal in terms of a better income, and increased sales for their organic Quinoa. This has allowed for their children to go to school, and for increased food security.  For outlets in the Northern Hemisphere serious about providing fair trade all round, ANAPQUI, and those like them should be paid attention to.

Sources:

Dobkin, L. “Are Prices Fair Along Quinoa’s Supply Chain.” http://leahdobkin.com/articles/supplychain.pdf

“Epazote.” http://www.rain-tree.com/epazote.htm

Mateu, L. “ANAPQUI (National Association of Quinoa Farmers.”  http://l-arka.org/node/640#anapqui

Sherwin. A. “The food Fad that’s Starving Bolivia.” http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/features/food-fad-thats-starving-bolivia-2248932.html

Study on the Social, Environmental and Economic Impacts of Quinoa Promotion in Bolivia http://www.underutilized-species.org/Documents/PUBLICATIONS/quinoa_case_study_en.pdf

Related Topics:

Maybe It’s Time to Think About Going Vegetarian!

How Western Diets Make the World Sick

The Potato Royalty to Be Paid!?

When the Greed of the Few Starves the Many

Allah’s Medicine Chest: Acai Berries (Euterpe oleracea)

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2 thoughts on “Quinoa: The Health Fad that is Starving the Cultivators

  1. A most welcome addition to vegetarian diets ..they are also perfect for those with food sensitivities including gluten wheat..and soy intolerances…Make sure to check out our ..for excellent ideas in using Quinoa in your kitchen!..Inca Organics is a fair trade company ensuring..that the indigenous farmers and artisans they work with receive fair..compensation.

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