Over the past decade, Quinoa, one of the few crops that thrive on Bolivia's high plains, 13,000 ft. above sea level, has become a pinnacle product for foodies, health nuts and fair-trade fanatics. The gluten-free staple--in Bolivia it is produced solely by small-scale farmers and 90% is organic--often adorns plates from celebrity chefs like Giada De Laurentiis and Bobby Flay and has inspired entire cookbooks devoted to salads, soups and stuffings touting its nutritional goodness.
It's an unaccustomed role for such a humble crop, which poorer Bolivians often grew and ate instead of buying rice. "It was always comida para los indios [food for Indians]," says Benjamin Huarachi, a member of the board of Bolivia's largest quinoa growers' association, Anapqui, almost laughing. "Today it's food for the world's richest."
It's also food for thought about the complications that arise when rich nations try to support farmers in the developing world. The colorful tall tufts, which yield one of the healthiest foods on the planet, have become Huarachi's golden goose. As global food prices have risen, the price of quinoa has tripled in the past five years, to $1 per lb., a boon to growers in the poorest region of South America's poorest country. "Now we've got tractors for our fields and parabolic antennas for our homes," he says.
And trouble with the neighbors. In an economy dependent on volatile commodity exports, quinoa has made farmers richer, but it has also become an out-of-reach luxury for many Bolivians and fueled violent conflict. In February hundreds of farmers clashed over prime quinoa-growing territory, and dozens were injured. The high price of quinoa has cut domestic consumption dramatically, sparking concerns about malnutrition, with many farmers scrambling to export all their quinoa, even supplementing their diets with foods like pasta. The crop is also straining natural resources as land inhabited by grazing llamas is turned over to quinoa, causing erosion and a scarcity of llama-fertilized soil.
The litany of problems raises questions about whether the satisfying act of buying fair trade--which aims to help small farmers gain access to higher-end consumers abroad--can do more harm than good for the poor in developing countries. "When you transform a food into a commodity, there's inevitable breakdown in social relations and high environmental cost," says Tanya Kerssen, a food-policy analyst for the food-and-development institute Food First, based in Oakland, Calif.
Quinoa, which has been cultivated in Bolivia since 3000 B.C., took off in richer countries in the 1990s after NASA researchers recommended it as part of a potential space-colony diet and health-food addicts latched on. Bolivia, the world's No. 1 quinoa producer, now grows roughly half the global supply (Peru is a close second, Ecuador third), and the superfood is the country's fastest-growing export.