Quinoa: The Dark Side of an Andean Superfood

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Juan Karita / AP

A woman shows her quinoa grain for sale at a market in La Paz, Bolivia, on March 2, 2012

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But despite good intentions, a dangerous cycle may be under way. "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 U.S.-based food and development institute Food First. February's conflict is a harbinger, notes Kerssen. Global warming has led to fewer frosts, resulting in more prime land available for quinoa cultivation. That has led to a near free-for-all. For three days in February, hundreds of farmers fought over what was once abandoned land. Four people were temporarily kidnapped, dozens were injured and, according to local leader Nina, a dynamite blast left one man armless. "I've never seen anything like this in my life," says Nina, 70, adding that since the government is ignoring pleas for military monitoring of the upcoming harvest, the situation will likely worsen.

What's more, territorial bickering is spreading. "Every week, I visit two or three communities with land disputes related to quinoa," says Nina, who, as mallku (traditional indigenous authority) must resolve these quarrels personally. Many families don't have land titles, he explains — they weren't needed when the ample arid soil was communal herding ground. Also, quinoa's high sale price is prompting a reverse migration of those who had long ago abandoned the Altiplano, triggering property disagreements.

Environmental problems are emerging too. Traditionally, quinoa fields covered 10% of this fragile ecosystem, llamas grazed on the rest. Now, llamas are being sold to make room for crops, provoking a soil crisis since the cameloid's guano is the undisputed best fertilizer for maintaining and restoring quinoa fields. (Other options like sheep poop appear to encourage pests.) Increased production also means erosion and strains on limited water sources. "It's frightening to think that a region that has sustained Andean civilizations for millennia could become sterile," says Kerssen.

Equally troubling is the fact that growers themselves are eating less of their gift from the gods. Last year, the Bolivian government acknowledged that national quinoa consumption over the previous five years had decreased 34%. Now there's worry of malnutrition in the quinoa heartland as growers admit that it's tempting to sell their entire harvest while prices are high.

But, they add, decline in rural consumption can't be blamed entirely on price spikes. "My kids eat quinoa — because they are obligated to," says Huarachi, explaining that the next generation simply prefers Coca-Cola over homemade quinoa soda, cookies over quinoa bread. Ironically too, growers note that as villagers climb out of poverty, a badge of upward mobility is the replacement of the nutritious comida de indios with processed "city" foods.

The Bolivian government says it includes quinoa-based products in school breakfasts and maternal-nutrition baskets nationwide. "We've got people in [the Amazon] eating quinoa," says Bolivia's Vice Minister for Rural Development and Agriculture, Victor Hugo Vásquez, explaining that before quinoa's mass production for export, Bolivians outside of the western highlands didn't even know it existed. The government also provides low-interest loans to small farmers, aiming to increase production, which could eventually make the product more affordable there.

But it may be too little too late, says Kerssen: "Quinoa is now a free-market phenomenon. This is a boom, and there's definitely going to be a bust."

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