Can Fair Trade Save Quinoa?

Quinoa is the gluten-free grain du jour, filling up plates and bowls across the Western world. Many health-minded restaurants know the consequences if their menus don't feature it prominently. Its roots—deep in the heart of the South American Andes—go back millennia as a staple food for cultures throughout Peru and Bolivia.

While the quinoa boom in America would seem to be a good thing—injecting a steady stream of cash into struggling economies, particularly Bolivia—the demand has brought with it consequences. A 2011 New York Times article on Bolivian quinoa exposed the trade off: "Fewer Bolivians can now afford [quinoa], hastening their embrace of cheaper, processed foods and raising fears of malnutrition in a country that has long struggled with it."

Read more about quinoa

According to Alter Eco, an importer of Fair Trade products including quinoa, between 1995 and 2006 demand for quinoa doubled Bolivian farmers' incomes. It improved the standard of living, created better housing and education opportunities, and consistently created steady employment opportunities throughout the region, even luring some people from cities back to rural quinoa farming communities. 

But theTimes reports that even quinoa growers can no longer afford to purchase the grain (technically speaking, quinoa is a seed), and health throughout the region has suffered as a result of consuming less expensive and less nutritious foods including pasta and white bread. At supermarkets in Bolivia, "a 1,000-gram bag of quinoa, just over two pounds, costs the equivalent of $4.85, compared with $1.20 for a bag of noodles the same weight and $1 for a bag of white rice," notes the Times.

Alter Eco, working with quinoa growers in the Andean Plateau's Altiplano region for the past 15 years, has helped streamline quinoa production while also addressing economic and environmental needs of the people. The National Association of Quinoa Producers (ANAPQUI) is a regional trade organization that works with Alter Eco helping to bring farmers better pricing on their quinoa. Alter Eco claims it has even subsidized farmers in times of need, which has led quinoa shortages in the short term, but hopefully a more sustainable source of quinoa in the long run.

Read more about Fair Trade

These efforts, though, make up a small percentage of the entire quinoa export market, which is still dominated by large food conglomerates leaning heavily on farmers to increase production at lower costs. Many Bolivians still can't afford to buy the nutritious food that's been a dietary staple in their culture for thousands of years. And the higher price tag on Fair Trade certified quinoa (and other Fair Trade products) appeals only to a certain Western consumer demographic—meaning not all customers are going to want to pay more for Fair Trade quinoa, despite its impact on Bolivians.

But it seems awareness is key. As the Fair Trade label graces more and more products (bananas, coffee, tea, chocolate, even soap are some examples), consumers are beginning to better understand the implications their purchases have. While the challenges of the global food market may be even less understood than our nascent awareness on basic nutritional needs, it is indeed becoming a significant consideration—and equally valuable—part of our diet.

Image: Alter Eco

By Jill Ettinger| June 19, 2013
Categories:  Eat
Keywords:  EatFood and Drink

About the Author

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a freelance journalist and marketing specialist primarily focused on the organic and natural industries, she bridges her love for changing the food system with her lifelong passion for writing and connecting people in their shared values. You can connect with Jill on Twitter and Instagram.

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