Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Quinoa Exports Cause Dilemma in Bolivia

Independent: The Food Fad That's Starving Bolivia

Increased global popularity of a South American food is causing adverse effects in Bolivia. For over 5,000 years, Bolivians have cultivated quinoa, a seed often cooked like rice that contains more protein than any other grain and all eight amino acids essential to humans in building proteins necessary to live. Bolivians traditionally have consumed quinoa at every meal, and it is a staple food in other South American countries as well. Quinoa has recently become more popular around the world, and demand for it has increased dramatically. This has caused its price to rise, and now many Bolivians are unable to afford this nutritious food.

Until recently, quinoa was a relatively unknown food outside South America, sold mostly in small health food shops. Although NASA declared it to be an ideal food for space missions because of its exceptional nutritional value, it failed to catch on. However, in the past few years it has become more popular in Western countries due to the recent trend in health foods generally and also because restaurant chefs have sought new and innovative ingredients from different cuisines.

This new popularity created a new demand for quinoa outside of South America, which has caused prices to increase dramatically. The price of quinoa has tripled in the past five years. This is encouraging some city dwellers in Bolivia to leave the city and purchase farm land to reap the benefits of farming quinoa. As a result, quinoa-growing areas are experiencing improved living standards. Previously, many Bolivians emigrated to Argentina and Chile to search for work, but now they are staying to farm quinoa because they can support themselves and their families.

While this price increase has benefitted quinoa farmers, local consumption of the nutritious food has decreased by 34 percent in the past five years. Many Bolivians are unable to afford to buy quinoa at these higher prices. In the regions where quinoa is grown, health officials warn of chronic malnutrition, especially in children. Bolivians have long experienced issues with malnutrition, but health experts warn that the problem is worsening as families turn away from quinoa and purchase cheaper, more processed, and less nutritious substitutes. In Bolivia, quinoa costs about five times more than an equivalent weight of noodles or white rice, both of which are far less nutritious than quinoa.

Another problem affecting malnutrition is the global spread of ideas and products. Many older Bolivians indicate that the younger generations do not want to eat the more nutritious quinoa and would rather have white bread and Coca-Cola. These changing cultural values also aggravate the malnutrition some villages are facing.

The Bolivian government is taking measures to increase domestic consumption of quinoa. Bolivia’s President recently announced a plan to lend $10 million to organic quinoa producers to provide more quinoa for domestic sale. It also is possible that increased demand for quinoa in general will encourage more production in Bolivia and elsewhere, which eventually may lower prices and make quinoa more affordable again to Bolivians. Also, health officials are including quinoa in a package of food given to pregnant and nursing women each month.

The recent global popularity of quinoa has created a difficult problem for Bolivia. Bolivian quinoa farmers are benefiting, but other Bolivians are harmed by their inability to afford this “super food” that has traditionally been a part of their daily diet. Unless the increased demand for quinoa is a temporary fad, or production can increase and lower the price of quinoa, Bolivians may have to find a way to replace this nutritious food in their diet.

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