Is buying quinoa bad for traditional consumers?

Is buying quinoa bad for traditional consumers? Michael Hermann
09 Jun
As popularity of quinoa has escalated in recent years, so too has the price. New research explores the impact this is having on traditional South American consumers

Few words have more successfully entered the health food vernacular in the last few years than quinoa (with a respectful tip of the hat to both curly kale and chia seeds). This humble grain, grown in the Andean regions of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru for thousands of years, contains all essential amino acids, and thus became known as ‘the complete protein’, the perfect natural food supplement for vegetarians and fitness fanatics alike. Consequently, quinoa imports into the US increased more than tenfold between 2004 and 2013.

However, as the popularity of quinoa was taking off, hot on its footsteps were stories suggesting that Western fondness for this newly trendy ‘superfood’ was having a devastating impact on developing communities back in South America, many of whom relied on it for their daily nutrition. With prices shooting through the roof, and all available stocks of quinoa being packaged up and shipped to wealthy consumers overseas, local Andean people were being forced to look elsewhere to put food on the table. This economic narrative suggested quinoa might be one of the most unethical products on our shelves. However, a recent study reveals a more complex story.

‘It is not right to say that this is making people worse off and threatening livelihoods,’ responds Marc Bellemare, Director of the Centre for International Food and Agricultural Policy at the University of Minnesota. Bellemare led a recent study in Peru on the impact of this ‘price shock’ on changes in the welfare of households in quinoa-consuming districts. ‘On the basis of our findings, we actually found a very, very small positive effect,’ he explains, ‘which we interpret as being the spillover effects throughout the economy of quinoa production that trickle down to the people that actually consume it as well.’

quinoaA quinoa plantation near the Chimborazo volcano in Ecuador (Image: FOTOS593/Shutterstock)

Bellemare’s research shows that when the price of quinoa dramatically increased, it had positive knock-on effects for entire communities, with everyone benefiting from the new wealth of the quinoa producers – a modest 0.07 per cent average increase in the welfare of quinoa-consuming households from every one per cent increase in the price. The report concludes: ‘the claim that rising quinoa prices were hurting those who had traditionally produced and consumed it... was patently false.’

While this may be a comfort for anyone who was feeling guilty about adding quinoa to their diet, there remains evidence that the market has yet to stabilise, with prices recently dropping, and returning to the pre-spike level of 2012. ‘That’s the sad part of the story,’ continues Bellemare. ‘Informally and very anecdotally, we know that people have been holding onto their grain, hoping that the price was going to go back up. Unfortunately, my best guess is that it’s probably not going to.’

This was published in the June 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today


Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester




Travel the Unknown


Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    Hung out to dry
    Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for mill...


NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.