Quinoa Nonsense, or Why the World Still Needs Agricultural Economists

RedQuinoa
Cooked Red Quinoa. (Source: WikiMedia Commons.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First came this post by Joanna Blythman on The Guardian‘s Comment Is Free blog:

Quinoa was, in marketing speak, the “miracle grain of the Andes,” a healthy, right-on, ethical addition to the meat avoider’s larder (no dead animals, just a crop that doesn’t feel pain). Consequently, the price shot up – it has tripled since 2006 – with more rarefied black, red and “royal” types commanding particularly handsome premiums.

But there is an unpalatable truth to face for those of us with a bag of quinoa in the larder. The appetite of countries such as ours for this grain has pushed up prices to such an extent that poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom it was once a nourishing staple food, can no longer afford to eat it. Imported junk food is cheaper. In Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken. Outside the cities, and fueled by overseas demand, the pressure is on to turn land that once produced a portfolio of diverse crops into quinoa monoculture.

Then came this contrarian response from The Globe and Mail‘s Doug Saunders:

Twenty years ago, quinoa was pretty much unknown. Now, it’s in everyone’s cafeteria. Its price is going through the roof.

And that, in the confused minds of Western foodies, is somehow a bad thing. …

There is nothing quite like food to make us lose all sense of perspective and reason. Behind the killer-quinoa meme you’ll find three modern fallacies of food.

First is the idea that success must be bad for the poor. Surely, we think, the quinoa-eating people of the Andes are going to be hurt if they can no longer afford their own crop.

The people of the Altiplano are indeed among the poorest in the Americas. But their economy is almost entirely agrarian. They are sellers – farmers or farm workers seeking the highest price and wage. The quinoa price rise is the greatest thing that has happened to them. And it is a deliberate strategy: Quinoa had all but died out as a staple in Bolivia, replaced by beans and potatoes, until farmers began planting it in the 1980s with exports to North America in mind.

Problem with Western foodies? More like a problem with journalists.

Indeed, it is impossible to know who is right and who is wrong between Blythman and Saunders without knowing the answers to a number of questions:

  1. Are most households in the Altiplano net buyers or net sellers of quinoa, or are they autarkic relative to it? Knowing the answer to that question would be a good first step toward assessing the welfare impacts of a quinoa price increase.
  2. Do net seller households produce under contract, as part of a quinoa value chain, or do they sell to processors on the spot market? Knowing the answer to that question would allow knowing whether producers are insured against price risk.
  3. Is it possible to store quinoa for a relatively long period? Knowing the answer to that question would allow us to tell whether people can avoid the “sell low, buy high” cycle by which many smallholders in developing countries are rendered poorer than they need to be.

Without knowing the answers to those questions, we must necessarily remain ignorant of the welfare effects of changes in the price of quinoa, and hide behind journalistic hubris. And that is why the world still needs agricultural economists who study food policy.

29 comments

  1. Aydan

    Would you be interested in answering these questions and writing a post about the real consequences of buying quinoa? I am sure many people would like to know.

    Here is another idea: buying local vs. imported agricultural products, which one is better for the people involved but also for the impact on the planet? Does my purchasing of Peruvian asparagus in middle of winter contribute to anything but excessive CO2 emissions (and a tasty dinner)?

  2. Marc F. Bellemare

    Aydan,

    Thanks for commenting. You are certainly up early these days! I would love to be able to answer those questions clearly, but I really would need to have all those data in hand in order to do so. In the meantime, I can only (and unfortunately) fall back on cautious ignorance, and a recognition that it could really go both ways. On the one hand, I suspect that there are many, many more consumers of quinoa than there are producers of quinoa, which means that rising quinoa prices might well represent a net welfare loss (though, for consumers in wealthy countries, consuming quinoa is a choice more than a necessity). On the other hand, if people in the Altiplano really did plant quinoa as a commercial crop, then rising quinoa prices are good news.

    What I don’t buy, however, is the argument that as the price of something rises, you can just eat something else. In many places, what people eat is driven by culture and social norms, and it is only under extreme pressure that people will eat anything else. So while one food can substitute for another (up to a point, of course) for people in developed countries, substitutes are typically harder to come by — both psychologically as well as culturally, and because of their availability — in many other countries.

    I’ll leave the local vs. non-local for another day, but for now, there’s this: I learned from a student last week that the definition of what is “local” varies at the state level. In certain places, “local” means within a certain mileage radius; in other places, “local” means within the same state. Ask 50 people what they think “local” means, and you’ll likely get 50 different answers. My view is that beyond the environmental aspects, the whole “local” thing is economic nationalism’s new clothes.

  3. Jeremy

    The answer to all three questions is “It all depends,” as you might expect. And one of the things it depends on it where the quinoa is being grown, and whether the people growing it belong to an association or not.

    A real problem, which is affecting quinoa as much as it has affected other cash crops in the past, such as cassava grown for starch factories, is that the cash people get for it is not enough to buy the nutrition they give up when they sell the crop, or plant land that used to grow food to cash crops. this is a really tricky one, and very hard to disentangle.

  4. Emilia

    Jeremy: I’m not sure think this is like cassava at all. Part of why it is bad if Andean households can no longer afford quinoa is that it’s not a cash crop only — it *is* food, and they would like to eat it. So that’s why it’s very important to know whether most people are net sellers or buyers: the folks who still produce it don’t need to go out and buy other nutrition, but could still choose to eat their quinoa if buying the same amount of nutrition with cash received from quinoa-sales would cost them more.

  5. Norm

    Hi Marc,

    I too am interested in your answers to the questions you bring up, although I’m not sure there is AN answer (we haven’t nailed down which is better food production style is the best for all in the US, though data abound).

    Perhaps some of the answers could be provided by Stefan Jeremiah and Michael Wilcox. They wrote “An open letter to NPR regarding quinoa and their myths.” In their post (on the Bear Witness Pictures blog) they say they “have liaised with the Bolivian mission at the United Nations regarding the International Year of the Quinoa, set for 2013. We have liaised with quinoa farmers, laborers, market sellers and production plants.”

  6. Pingback: Links I liked | Chris Blattman
  7. Jeremy

    Emilia, it is like cassava in the example I am thinking of, in the Kolli Hills in India. Cassava there is a food too. What happened was that when offered cash for cassava, many villagers stopped growing millet and switched to cassava. They got cash for the cassava they sold, but it wasn’t enough to purchase nutrition to replace the millet. Now I agree that it is a little less straightforward than quinoa, although even there, the short-term attraction of cash, some of which would have to be spent on food, might be more appealing than the long-term consequences which include, but are not limited to, malnutrition, especially among children. Organisations such as PROINPA in Bolivia have been working hard to make it easier for farm families both to get a better price for their quinoa and to make it easier for them to eat more of the stuff themselves. I am sure that the Wilcox and Jeremiah film will show these aspects of the question.

  8. genauer

    thinking this,

    as a physicist and with our conservation laws,

    Bolivia is exporting this quinoa, at much larger volumes than the past and a high(er) price.

    The profit does not go to some outside (large) company.

    Therefore, whatever the detailed local working is, the net cash from export should reflect the welfare gain for the bolivian people.

  9. Sergio Nunez De Arco

    I have the answers to your questions:
    Q:- Are most households in the Altiplano net buyers or net sellers of quinoa, or are they autarkic relative to it? Knowing the answer to that question would be a good first step toward assessing the welfare impacts of a quinoa price increase.
    A: The altiplano is huge and not al who live there are quinoa farmers. Why is everyone not planting quinoa? Because there simply is not an unlimited demand for it. There’s plenty of quinoa produced, and it’s not so easy finding a market. Farmers who plant quinoa are net sellers. Herders are net buyers. Assessing the financial welfare impact in the quinoa production areas is easy: tracking average income per family farm. It went up from $35 to $220 per family per month in the past 5 years.

    Q:Do net seller households produce under contract, as part of a quinoa value chain, or do they sell to processors on the spot market? Knowing the answer to that question would allow knowing whether producers are insured against price risk.
    A: many producers are illiterate and do no sign contracts. Most quinoa producers are organized in associations or coops in Bolivia. In Peru and Ecuador they have private land ownership. Producers self-insured against price risk by selling only 2/3 of their crop until they are certain of the next year’s crop outcome. no formal insurance or long-term contracting in the quinoa business.

    Q:Is it possible to store quinoa for a relatively long period? Knowing the answer to that question would allow us to tell whether people can avoid the “sell low, buy high” cycle by which many smallholders in developing countries are rendered poorer than they need to be.
    A: Quinoa can be kept as long as 3 years with no adverse effects. We have 5 year old stock that does not show signs of aging. small holders can wait out short periods of low prices- which are very, very rare. Quinoa has mainly gone up in price in the last 5 years.

    Sadly with all the negative press around quinoa there is an increasing incentive for mass-cultivated, hybrid quinoa production. These companies will provide an increasing supply of quinoa against which small farmers will have a tough time competing. This is why it’s so important for customers such as all of you to be aware of where your quinoa comes from and its impact in the supply chain.

    -Sergio

  10. Heather

    Thanks for a nice article (and thanks to Sergio for some answers). I would say not only do we still need ag economists but maybe journalists (or, maybe better, good anthropologists) that actually talk to the people in the communities on which they are reporting? I understand that this is a problem – http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/mon-january-14-2013/investigating-investigative-journalism

    It’d be nice to see some work on quinoa similar to CGD’s recent work on coffee. My bag of quinoa tells me that it is supporting small farmers in all kinds of ways…

  11. Pingback: Quinoa: it’s still really complicated, and nobody cares about it in December
  12. Pingback: Heffernan: Quinoa may be great, but not for Bolivians : http://www.PapaTravel.com – travel, cheap flight, cheap airfares, cheap flights
  13. Pingback: Heffernan: Quinoa may be great, but not for Bolivians | Hot Coffee Shop
  14. Pingback: Heffernan: Quinoa may be great, but not for Bolivians | The Worthington Post
  15. Pingback: Quinoa Nonsense, or Why the World Still Needs Agricultural Economists | UrsulaSola's Blog
  16. Pingback: What We Are Reading 25/01/2013 « Do No Harm
  17. Joe

    Thanks to Sergio for his informed response. My experience (strictly anecdotal) from traveling in Bolivia and Peru 10 years ago was that meat and potatoes dominated local cuisine. The only time I saw quinoa on the menu was when I stopped in the tourist haven of Cuzco. My host at the time indicated that quinoa didn’t hold much cache locally because it was stigmatized as “peasant food.”
    One reader mentions the problems attendant with shipping quinoa from South America rather than “eating locally.” In their book “The Ethics of What We Eat,” Peter Singer and Jim Mason measure the carbon footprints left by various types of importation as compared to visiting a farm 30 miles away to purchase food. Surprisingly the delivery method with the smallest carbon footprint per pound of food was shipping in bulk by diesel-powered ship – even from across the expanse of the Pacific. The reason is that those traveling to nearby farms to buy locally are typically doing so in individual car trips. The method of delivery then, for an equal volume of food becomes hundreds of individual car trips to equal what can be shipped by sea in bulk surprisingly cheaply.

  18. Pingback: How many Bolivians are dying because foodies love quinoa? | Point4CounterPoint
  19. Norm

    “Surprisingly the delivery method with the smallest carbon footprint per pound of food was shipping in bulk by diesel-powered ship – even from across the expanse of the Pacific.”

    Evidence that doing something that feels good and doing something that does good requires some homework and math.

  20. Jeremy

    @Joe: interesting observations, supported by a commenter to our blog. He said:

    One noteworthy argument used by Saunders is that quinoa “had all but died out as a staple in Bolivia” by the 1980s. In a book chapter about to be published (http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9781849714570/), I argue that quinoa has indeed been a secondary food item in living memory in the Andean highlands (except perhaps for small pockets in the Altiplano), and that its decline probably has its roots in the emergence and growing competition of highland-adapted maize prior European contact (admittedly, the evidence for the latter is scant… although there is some).

    I would thus seem that the current outrage about the significance of quinoa becoming unaffordable is based on a fallacious premise, namely that the poor have consumed massive amounts of quinoa prior to the current price surge, and are now deprived of a food that was nutritionally significant to them. In that regard please see the short communication of Winkel et al (J. Agronomy & Crop Science, 2012): “Although quinoa is promoted in the markets of the northern countries as the ‘rice of the Incas’, Andean populations have never consumed it as a staple cereal, like rice in Asia or wheat in the Middle East and Europe. In fact, native Andean people regard quinoa as a ‘heavy’ foodstuff and, as a dietary rule, consider it harmful to eat it for dinner (Johnsson 1986: 107). Traditionally, quinoa is mostly used to thicken soups or drinks (lahua, pesqe) or in the form of small cookies (kispinia, mukuna), and less frequently as main dish (phisara) (National Research Council 1989, Tapia et al. 2000). […..] We agree with Jacobsen (2011: 396) that quinoa has tended to be replaced by pasta and rice, which, contrary to the quinoa grain commonly available in the villages and the urban markets of Bolivia, do not require tedious cleaning and washing before consumption. But this change occurred long before quinoa entered the export market (see Johnsson 1986: 167, referring to the early 1980s)”.

  21. Pingback: What we learned this week | Make Wealth History
  22. Pingback: The International Year of Quinoa – Every silver lining has a cloud. « Dochasnetwork's Blog
  23. Dawn Corso

    Thank you all for such an informative discussion. So many variables exist in this issue, that its hard to sort out for the average (yet concerned) consumer. I’ll keep reading…

  24. Pingback: Round Up Ready – Food Controversy Edition | On a Quasi-Related Note
  25. Pingback: The Bad News About Quinoa | FRAGGIN' CIVIE
  26. Pingback: The More You Read | Punyu