Skip main navigation

£199.99 £139.99 for one year of Unlimited learning. Offer ends on 28 February 2023 at 23:59 (UTC). T&Cs apply

Find out more

Quinoa – boon or bane for the Andean highlands?

In this video we discuss whether quinoa's popularity, its boom and subsequent decine in price affected the regions where it is grown: Peru and Bolivia
-When a food is marketed as a superfood, its economic value changes. For golden grains can hope to become a new source of wealth. Staple foods can become cash crops. These can lead to social and dietary changes both positive and negative. One example that drew the attention of media is quinoa. Quinoa is a pseudocereal that originated in South America and was traditionally grown in the Andean region mostly in Peru and Bolivia. Quinoa is prized for its absence of gluten its high-protein content and for its micronutrients since the last 25 years. In fact, NASA scientists wrote in 1993 that quinoa would be suitable food for long-term space missions and life support systems in space stations because of its nutritional value.
But what brought quinoa’s fame to the stars were Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities who lauded it and included it in their diets. Due to a rapid global acceptance and to rising market demand in less than 10 years the price of quinoa increased at least three times and some varieties of quinoa sold for as much 20 times the price of wheat. As the price of quinoa increased its role began to change too. Once a part of the traditional diet quinoa became a cash crop. With every year, greater and greater amounts of quinoa were exported to foreign countries. At the peak of the quinoa boom some media outlets urged Western consumers to stop eating quinoa.
They worried that some sectors of Peru and Bolivia populations would substitute quinoa with unhealthy and less traditional food. Was that true? The picture is complicated and the data gathered from the rural regions where quinoa is traditionally grown is often not precise or abundant enough. However, there is some agreement on the fact that as quinoa prices grew close to its peak the welfare of quinoa farmers increased. Farmers could still eat it and they could spend more money on other goods. Despite the alarms and in the short term there seemed to be no bad consequences of the quinoa craze. On the other hand it is possible that some of the effects that were feared actually occurred.
While farmers continued to grow quinoa for their consumption cheaper grains partially substituted quinoa amongst the people that didn’t grow it. It is also possible that some of the extra income brought by the quinoa boom was spent on Western foods such as candy and sodas that were almost seen as more desirable despite being unhealthy. The situation at the peak of the boom, 2013 was not destined to remain stable. The boom was followed by a bust. Due to the large increase in the total production the price of quinoa decreased and it is now close to its previous values.
Recently, governments in Peru and Bolivia are trying to protect traditional varieties of quinoa such as Quinoa Real just as typical geographical products are protected in many other parts of the world. Whether the attempt will be successful is still unknown but it could restore source of wealth for the farmers of the Andean highlands. In the end, did the quinoa craze help or damage the populations that traditionally grew it? Unfortunately, the boom was too short to lead to a widespread and stable increase in well-being in Peru and Bolivia. Millions of citizens of Western countries found a new valuable food but traditional farmers are not better off for it.

Did quinoa affect the economy and diets in the Andean highlands?

Sometimes superfoods demand drives up their prices considerably, changing their status from traditional food into cash crops.

This was the case of quinoa, that saw a spectacular rise in prices in the span of a few years. Did this phenomenon cause dietary changes in the regions where it was traditionally grown?

Economists investigated this issue – luckily, it seems that fears of lasting socioeconomic changes were unfounded, and that quinoa farmers benefitted from an increased income. Unfortunately, this benefit did not last for long: quinoa production soon increased to catch up with the rise in demand, and prices fell again to their previous levels.

The example of quinoa shows us what could happen when a traditional crop enjoyed only locally attains superfood status, though there are many aspects to consider: on one hand, the increased income for farmers; on the other, the risk of overexploitation of wild resources, diminished biodiversity due to the creation of large farms specialized in the production of the specific crop and, as mentioned before, the possibility that people that traditionally ate that food could no longer afford it.

What is the right balance between global trade of superfoods and the preservation of local traditions and environment? Give us your opinion in the comments!

This article is from the free online

Superfoods: Myths and Truths

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education