Navigating Quinoa Conflict

Navigating Quinoa Conflict

As we get close to Thanksgiving in the U.S.A., food and family are on most folks’ minds.

Of course, food is one of my favorite subjects.  I thought this year I would cook one of my quinoa dishes for Thanksgiving and give my family an alternative to the potatoes and gravy.

Who am I kidding?  They’re going to eat the mashed potatoes and gravy, but maybe they’ll choose quinoa as that second helping.  Well, I’m eating potatoes and gravy too, but I’m going to try the quinoa anyway.

Navigating Quinoa Conflict

Landscape quinoa Chenopodium Cachilaya, Bolivia, Lake Titicaca
Author: Wikimedia Commons Michael Hermann

Quinoa has firmly established its international reputation as a “super food.”  Quinoa is pronounced kiːnwɑː  (Chenopodium quinoa) – and most of you already know it as a very nutritional food all around.

The United Nations designated 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa.  The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization state that quinoa makes an important contribution to global food security and fighting hunger.

But there’s a quinoa conflict brewing on the horizon, particularly in Latin America from where the world imports the majority of quinoa production.  Navigating quinoa conflict presents a challenge for the future.

Quinoa Super Food

In my blog, “Quinoa Baby Boomer Super Food,” I talked about how I discovered quinoa as an important part of my diet and the many benefits of quinoa.  I also discussed how I prepare and eat the delicious seed.

Navigating Quinoa Conflict  Bowl of Quinoa Cooked With Carrots, Curry, & Onions

Bowl of Quinoa I Cooked With Carrots, Curry, & Onions
Author: Hispanic Globe

I compare quinoa to sweet potatoes because of the essential amino acids – only without the higher sugar content.  It’s very low on the glycemic index.  It’s a complete food without the gluten, sugar, and meat – it’s a “super food.”

Sometimes I use quinoa as a substitute for pasta when I do eat Italian at home.  It’s not really a grain because it is related closer to beets and spinach than to cereals or grains.

Quinoa is a complete protein source with the essential amino acids required for good nutrition.  There are apparently 1800 plus varieties out there in the world.

Quinoa as a Small Business

Farmers threshing quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), near Puno, Peru  Wikimedia Commons Michael Hermann

Farmers threshing quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), near Puno, Peru
Wikimedia Commons Michael Hermann

In another blog, “Quinoa Baby Boomer Business,” I discussed the potential business side of quinoa.  The playing field is shifting rapidly now from organically grown quinoa (fertilized by Llama dung) in the Bolivian Highlands to mass produced and commercially harvested quinoa in Peru.

In Peru, commercial farming uses pesticides and chemical fertilizers.  Peru continues to grow quinoa the traditional organic way, but this may be eclipsed by the rise of commercial large scale production.

The USDA Foreign Agricultural Service states quinoa exports have increased by five times (2007-2012) in Peru and it’s now the number one exporter of quinoa to the U.S.  The price has doubled in the last five years due to the demand in developed countries.  The average export price in 2007 was $1,308 per metric ton (MT) to $2,882 per MT in 2012.

Global expansion of quinoa production continues with farms developing outside Latin America.  For instance, experimentation and development are happening in the USA, China, Australia, Paraguay, etc.  Even Great Britain has developed production.

So the trend seems to indicate that markets will expand.  Perhaps this “super food” will become even cheaper, although it remains to be seen how the quality may change with the different soils and farming techniques around the globe.

The Quinoa Conflict

An AP article entitled, “Influx of Cheap Peruvian Quinoa Riles Bolivia,” points to the conflict brewing between Bolivia and Peru over cheap quinoa imports into Bolivia.  Apparently, Peruvian quinoa is being dumped into Bolivia, forcing prices down among the traditional organic growers in the central highlands.

Recently, Bolivian authorities intercepted a large shipment of Peruvian quinoa smuggled across the border. The 23 metric tons were dumped in a ditch and burned. This is an extreme measure given the fact that poverty in Bolivia is still significant.

Just several years ago, Peru accounted for only 6 per cent of quinoa global sales, while Bolivia had 90 percent.  Tables are now being quickly reversed by Peruvian commercial farming techniques that are not only producing more volume per harvest, but also squeezing two harvests out in one year.

On top of that, there seems to be some mixing of commercially grown and organic quinoa by suppliers.  That makes quality an unknown and navigating quinoa conflict more challenging.

Navigating Quinoa Conflict

Quinoa color variations INIA Genebank Instituto de Investigaciones Agropecuarias Juliaca, Peru
Wikimedia Commons Michael Hermann

So this conflict is just getting started.  The pressure on Bolivian organic farmers may increase since eventually lower prices will exceed their cost of production.  Where it ends no one knows, but meanwhile quinoa prices are falling and particularly organic quinoa prices.

This is good and bad news for global consumers.  In the short term, the good news is that prices may continue to fall for organic quinoa. If you don’t care if it’s organic then you’re in for a windfall of cheap commercially grown quinoa.

The bad news is that eventually the organic quinoa may cost even more than before when prices were around $10 USD per kilo.  The demand for true organic quinoa will eventually push organic prices up.

In addition, the abundance of commercially produced quinoa may drive some Bolivian organic farmers out of business or worse, pressure them to adapt techniques that lessen the quality of the quinoa through commercial farming – i.e. the use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

One caveat to this scenario would be if Bolivian organic growers can get support from their government to set up a more stringent organic certification process that is recognized worldwide.  The results of that would ensure the organic quality of the product and probably support a higher price that would be above the Bolivian farmer production costs.

Navigating Quinoa Conflict

Navigating Quinoa Conflict

500g bag of quinoa from Portugal Wikimedia Commons Mecanismo

There is little doubt that global quinoa demand will continue to rise.  The nutritional value alone of this seed beats a lot of traditional grains like wheat and rice. World quinoa production continues to rise as more countries develop their own quinoa production methods.

The question is how the quality of the quinoa will be maintained against the backdrop of increased commercial farming.  The jury is still out on that since more studies are required to determine the real difference health wise between organic and commercially grown quinoa.  A global quinoa organic certification process is essential.

On a personal note, I will be checking to confirm my source of quinoa to determine its organic quality.  Subjectively, it’s not always easy to tell the difference between organic and commercially farmed quinoa.  It would be nice if more scientific studies could yield a more factual opinion on the subject.

In the meantime, navigating quinoa conflict is a challenge.  The maxim is always buyer beware.  You have to check out your food sources and unfortunately now, quinoa the “super food,” is added to that list.





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