SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Certain superfoods are being marketed as panaceas, not only to boost health in radical ways but also to alleviate world hunger and poverty. Popular superfoods include chia seeds, moringa, goji berries, acai and quinoa. In terms of nutrition, these diverse, often exotic foods provide undeniable benefits. However, these trendy foods are a serious problem for farmers who have been growing the humble crops for centuries and whose livelihoods are now at risk.
“Quinoa was always comida para los indios [food for Indians],” said Benjamin Huarachi, a Bolivian quinoa farmer. “Today it’s food for the world’s richest.” Huarachi describes eating the seed almost every day growing up, because it was the only food source available to his impoverished family.
Within the past several years, quinoa’s superfood status has skyrocketed its sales and price. This has yielded benefits for Andean farmers, providing increased income to improve homes and buy better farming equipment, but it also has a host of negative complications. Western demand for the miracle food has taken poor subsistence farmers out of the market, making their dietary staple inaccessible. Certain quinoa varieties sell for more than $3500 per ton, which has forced farmers to depend on cheaper, non-traditional fare like fast food and processed “city” foods. Farmers are far more willing to sell their nutritious quinoa crops than eat them, prompting concerns about malnutrition for themselves and their families.
In addition, violence and feuds over quinoa-friendly land in Bolivia has resulted in dozens of injuries and even occasional kidnappings. Global warming has led to a decrease in frosts, exposing more prime territory. As a result, quinoa’s high price is attracting an influx of hopeful new farmers.
The quinoa boom also creates environmental issues. In the past, quinoa fields covered approximately 10 percent of Andes farmland, with llamas grazing on the rest. Today, llamas are being sold to clear new land for crops. This poses a threat to the land, because without llamas’ natural fertilizer, the fields cannot be restored or preserved. Increased quinoa production also taxes the Andes’ limited water supply and leads to dangerous erosion.
“It’s frightening to think that a region that has sustained Andean civilization for millennia could become sterile,” said Tanya Kerssen, a food-policy analyst for the U.S.-based food and development institute Food First. “When you transform a food into a commodity, there’s inevitable breakdown in social relations and high environmental cost.”
Yet some are not so sympathetic. “It’s the same old story,” said Pierre Desrochers, University of Toronto professor and food-economics author. “At some point or another, every place on earth had subsistence farming….” he added, noting that many of the world’s current food staples began as regional foods before being picked up by the rest of the world. Desrochers encourages people to focus on the positive economic impacts that food commodification can have on poor farmers. “The culprit of hunger is often bad local politics,” he said. “Not other people wanting to buy your food.
Another proponent of the the quinoa boom is Mustafa Koc, the director of Ryerson University’s food security program, who suggested that the benefits of making a nutrient-powerhouse like quinoa globally available far outweighs the complications. “Any time you take a traditional item for one person and turn it into a commodity for someone else, there’s going to be destruction,” he said.
Undoubtedly, both sides have their views, but it is most important to examine the possible, unforeseen repercussions of efforts to alleviate poverty and ensure we do not harm the very people we seek to aid.
– Mari LeGagnoux