Recently I read an article on the Guardian website entitled ‘Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa’, describing how the increasing Western demand for the nutritious grain has contributed to the demise of food security for the farmers that produce it, predominantly in South America. Although I am not Vegan myself, I do enjoy quinoa, and I did instantly feel the familiar guilt that comes with consuming foods that may have negative effects on others. Out of curiosity, I decided to look into this further, and after reading around the ‘superfood’ as many call it, I found that the problem with the mass exportation of the grain was not one of security, but sovereignty.
Demand from the West
It is true that demand for quinoa in recent years has increased at a spectacular rate, from 177 tons exported in 1980, to a phenomenal 15,363 in 2010, as shown in the graph below [i]. The UN even declared that “2013 was the year of quinoa”.
The reasons for the increase in demand can be attributable to a number of different factors. Personally, I am of the opinion that the rise in the idea of the ‘superfood’,combined with social media sites such as Instagram are at the roots of this increase in the Western world. This can be seen through a survey conducted by YouGov – 61% of the UK population claim to have purchased a superfood simply because of it being labelled so. Are people simply buying these foods to convey to others that they have a healthy lifestyle? Perhaps. Although I am somewhat embarrassed to admit this, I myself am somewhat guilty; during a recent start of term ‘health kick’, I myself posted a picture on Instagram of my super healthy dinner, of course, containing quinoa.
But what are the effects of these Western practises on the people that provide us with quinoa? It appears that the effects are multidimensional and complex to say the least. Although a decrease in food security is the dominant discourse within the media, it appears as though this may not be completely true; it is arguably a misrepresentation. It has been reported that the increased demand has improved conditions for quinoa farmers, resulting in them having a more stable, frequent income and a more varied and nutritious diet, containing fruit and vegetables, as pictured in the diagram below [ii]. It would appear therefore, that food security has improved for these rural farmers. However, we must not assume that these recorded effects are all positive, who are we to assume that a more capitalised society is what these farmers aspire to?
It seems food sovereignty and the loss of connection between producers and consumers is the main problem for quinoa farmers. As Ostehage explains, the forms of production and exchange in South America are the reasons for quinoa being so embedded in local culture, not consuming the actual grain itself. It appears as though large co-operations are capitalising on farmers intellect therefore profiting from local knowledge and culture. Additionally he argues farmers feel as though the cultural meaning of the grain has been lost in translation, and the consumers of the products are none the wiser about its heritage. Skarbo has also noted that the original practises that farmers previously used has been withdrawn and mechanised, therefore arguably further exploiting indigenous culture.
There have been various movements, as reported by Skarbo , of quinoa farmers and the fair trade organisation attempting to combat this problem of disconnection, but whether they have worked is a different story in itself. Farmers have attempted to reconnect consumers with their cultural identity through the packaging of their produce. For example, local political activists in Bolivia have attempted to trade mark their products, in attempt to get across the grains denomination of origin and form regional solidarity. However, after a quick internet search, it appears that these various efforts have not reached mainstream consumers, in the UK at least. After looking through the online sites of the ‘Big 4’ supermarket retailers in the UK (Tesco, ASDA, Morrison’s and Sainsbury’s) it is clear that the origins of quinoa are not displayed on packaging. One of the most popular brands of quinoa – “Merchant Gourmet”, contains all of the nutritional information on the Sainsbury’s website, serving suggestions etc, but no information at all as to where the grain originated from. After looking at the brands website, the origin is also not clear. The food provenance here it appears, is not of important value to consumers, it appears they are more concerned with the nutritional value. This supports my theory that nutrition, and the ‘superfood’ are arguably the key factors associated with the products demand.
It is clear that the challenges faced by quinoa farmers are ones that need dealing with in order to ensure food sovereignty and combat the loss of cultural identity. Quinoa is a great example of how complex and multifaceted one single food can be – culture, security, sovereignty, consumerism, the media and world trade are just some of the key discourses that surround this nutritious grain.
[i] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Statistics Division (2013) http://faostat.fao.org. Last accessed 28/12/15
[ii] FAO The Impact of the Quinoa Boom on Bolivian Farmers (2013). http://www.fao.org/assets/infographics/Quinoa_Infographic.pdf. Last accessed 28/12/15