Feature: Is quinoa really the new cocaine in Bolivia?

A gormet quinoa dish at the Ceviche Restaurant in Soho, LondonA gormet quinoa dish at the Ceviche Restaurant in Soho, London
Bolivian women harvest quinoa near Lake Titicaca.

Bolivian women harvest quinoa near Lake Titicaca.

For a few years now there have been concerns in Europe and North America about how the increase in demand for quinoa has affected producers and consumers in the Andean region, where the grain is a staple component of the diet. Western media has been up in arms, often condemning consumers as unethical for their continuous consumption of the ‘superfood,’ with some dubbing quinoa the ‘new cocaine’ of the Andean region. A sort of moral panic has been stirred, which while partly true, is not productive. Regular Western consumers of cocaine are not generally regarded as the most ethically-conscious individuals, and are therefore not so concerned with the effect that their consumption habits have on the socio-economic and political state of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. Western quinoa-eaters, on the other hand, stereotypically tend to be the same health-conscious and usually well-meaning people who buy local and fair-trade, and fill their friends’ Facebook feeds with petitions to save the children/rainforests/pandas. So is it fair to label them as selfish or morally bankrupt?

Quinoa has been a staple food in Bolivia and Peru for thousands of years, but has only been a part of North American and European diets in the last decade or so. It is hailed as an almost panacea-like miracle grain, and not for nothing. Quinoa is one of the most comprehensively nutritious foods in the world. It has a high protein content (between 14 and 18%) contains all 10 amino acids essential to the human diet, making it an attractive substitute for animal protein, hence its big vegan following. It is a source of vitamin E, B2, and has calcium, potassium, magnesium, and phosphorous too. The UN named 2013 ‘The Year of Quinoa,’ asserting that it could contribute to world food security. It grows well in arid and high-altitude environments, meaning that it has the potential to grow in areas affected by desertification and climate change.

The most salient argument against the huge Western demand for quinoa is that it is pricing Bolivian consumers out of the market. The going rate averages almost £2,000 per tonne, triple what it was in 2006. There are concerns that the lowered domestic demand may cause malnutrition, since ‘junk food’ is now cheaper in Bolivia than quinoa, which has encouraged the replacement of a nutritious stable food with an array of cheap and unhealthy alternatives. However, this is not the whole story. The hungry demand has brought increased income to Bolivian farmers, raising their standards of living. For the most part, quinoa is not like coffee, cocaine, or cocoa in the sense that it is not grown in big plantations owned by the powerful elite, but by small-scale farmers. A danger is, though, that big international corporations might try to intrude in the market of the valuable commodity.

The Bolivian president, Evo Morales has welcomed quinoa’s worldwide recognition. His government is promoting quinoa as part of a national health campaign to combat malnutrition, and it claims that Bolivian consumption has actually increased, despite the elevated prices. The worries about malnutrition due to decreased consumption may have been misleading, since quinoa had been replaced by potatoes and beans as the staple foods of Bolivia in the last few decades until farmers began planting it in the 1980s to supply to North American consumers. There appear to be two markets emerging: the domestic and the international. Quinoa is often produced solely for export, and the international price is still higher than the Bolivian street price, which has a different set of suppliers.

A gormet quinoa dish at the Ceviche Restaurant in Soho, London

A gormet quinoa dish at the Ceviche Restaurant in Soho, London

In some cases, farmers have switched from producing Bolivia’s other big export, cocaine, to quinoa, which is almost undoubtably a positive move for Bolivian political and economic stability. There has been so much demand for quinoa in the market that Bolivia has seen some of its urbanisation reversed, as people move from the city back to the countryside to seek their fortunes in the lucrative industry. This could be seen as an environmental advantage, since rural life is generally agreed to be more sustainable than urban life. But environmentally, there are some worries. One concern is that as quinoa production increases, llama grazing has decreased, changing the soil structure of the Andean ecosystem, which relies in part of the faeces of llamas and other livestock. However, quinoa still trumps animal agriculture in its environmental impact. Meat output requires feeding grains to animals, which could have served as food for humans, which creates a competition of demand between the more wealthy meat-eaters and those who struggle to afford food. It takes almost five pounds of grain to produce one pound of chicken or fish for human consumption, and significantly more for pork and beef. Claims that vegans’ consumption of quinoa is worse than meat-eaters’ consumption of animal products and byproducts are misleading. Just as the soya scare a few years ago was debunked with the revelation that 97% of soya is fed to livestock, it is likely that the world will come to realise that quinoa consumption causes much less net environmental damage than many other staple components of the western diet.

There is no doubt that production must increase to match demand, otherwise the scarcity will only see prices rise more. Europeans and Americans are not the only ones. China has also recently signed a trade agreement with Bolivia, that will see it join the quinoa market. If Chinese demand also increases rapidly, this could change the story and increase scarcity of the grain, and therefore the price.   But food protectionism could be financially devastating for Bolivian farmers, and would not be an effective solution to address the change in the Bolivian diet. Consumption of imported goods and production of goods for export can both be signs of economic development. Production is also beginning to expand outside Bolivia and Peru to the US, and several countries in Europe and Asia, so it is possible that the economic challenges quinoa poses for Bolivia are temporary, as the market adjusts to this exponential increase in demand. The move cannot be instantaneous, and production as it stands is not without its problems, but measures are being taken to make the industry fairer and more sustainable in the long run. Food poverty in Bolivia is worrying, but if we consider that an estimated 870 million people in the world do not have enough to eat, it is clear that the quinoa industry is by no means the sole culprit, in a similar way as cocaine is not the sole culprit in the international ‘war on drugs’.

Bolivian police work to destroy a coca plantation.

Bolivian police work to destroy a coca plantation.

The release of a study by the European Monitor for Drugs and Drug Addiction, which concluded that London is the biggest consumer of of cocaine in Europe, has made the illegal drug trade subject to scrutiny in the British media. Bolivia’s big exports are hydrocarbons, quinoa, and cocaine. Although it is difficult to accurately estimate the production of cocaine, one of the three major illegal drugs, along with cannabis and opium poppies, all the global estimates have indicated a dramatic increase since the 1980s. There is a social paradox with illegal drugs, especially in countries like Bolivia: they are a source of enjoyment and income, but also cost billions in drug control and treatment of abusers, to say nothing of the violence and human suffering involved in international drug trade. Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru produce 98% of the world’s cocaine, and they are also almost the exclusive suppliers of quinoa. Both are essential to the Bolivian economy. Between 8 and 17% of Bolivia’s workforce, hundreds of thousands of people, are directly employed in the drug production and processing industry. Just as controls on quinoa farmers would cause economic instability for many Bolivians, so too would tighter drug controls.

The cocaine industry is extremely efficient. Estimated over 98% of cocaine ends up in the consumer’s body. Quinoa, with its huge demand and ready supply, is also not wasteful, as there is sufficient demand to consume ever gram that is supplied. The big concern may not be economic, but environmental. Quinoa and cocaine pose challenges to the Andean ecosystem in the clearing of forests to make space for plantations, and in the case of cocaine, toxic herbicides used in eradication campaigns can be very damaging to the atmosphere and soil.

Cocaine and quinoa production have both increased in the same time frame as overseas demand, and it is not a stretch to suppose that the latter has influenced the former. Western Europe is second only to the US in demand for for illegal drugs, and there is little to suggest that demand will fall, just as there is no indication that quinoa’s popularity will wane. However, it is inaccurate and unfair to say that consumers with a desire to get healthy, or party (or both) are solely responsible for hunger and violence, and their consumption habits are having a negative effect on many lives. If we consider the mainstream food industry, we find a world that is far from perfection, with cruelty, poverty, and exploitation across the entire market.

Quinoa is not the new cocaine. It is not as damaging to either consumers or producers, and the its export to Western markets actually has a net economic benefit for Bolivia. To say that Western consumption of quinoa is as damaging as its consumption of cocaine is to grossly simplify a complex industry.

Photographs courtesy of: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=44180; http://www.themomentmagazine.com/whats-on/events/pop-peruvian-meal/; http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/media/images/58015000/jpg/_58015736_013730160-1.jpg