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Quinoa Fever: Superfood's Soaring Popularity Is Killing South American Growers

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The burgeoning global demand for quinoa may be negatively impacting the people who grow it, reports columnist Joanna Blythman for The Guardian.

Until recently, the ancient seed was primarily eaten by the rural poor of Bolivia and Peru. Now the superfood indigenous to the Andes mountain range of South America is showing up in restaurants and grocery stories across the U.S. and in recipes all over the web. It is commonly recommended as a compliment to fish or lamb, or to bolster the heartiness of a fresh salad or pan-seared greens.

Indian Country Today Media Network’s food columnist Dale Carson, Abenaki, has likewise written about the healthy pasta substitute—rich in iron, protein, fiber, potassium, zinc and essential amino acids.

“[T]he Inca called quinoa chisa mama, ‘mother of all grain…,’” she writes, offering recipe suggestions for quinoa and beans, as well as a quinoa salad with avocado. 

But this sudden championing of quinoa has its drawbacks. The price is soaring, and the Peruvians and Bolivians who have subsisted on it for centuries can no longer afford it.

The New York Times reported in 2011 that increased demand for quinoa had driven up the price three-fold in the past five years. Meanwhile, Bolivia’s consumption fell by 34 percent over the same period.

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Costs have shot so high that now in Bolivia and Peru, “imported junk food is cheaper,” writes Blythman. “In Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken.” And even more devastating, climbing quinoa prices have been blamed for a rise in malnutrition among children in quinoa-growing regions.

There’s no denying the seed is nutritious and widely touted. The United Nations even declared 2013 the Year of Quinoa, and Bolivia's President Evo Morales attended the U.N. ceremony on February 20.

But given its ability to cripple food security among South America’s poor, enthusiasm for the seed “looks increasingly misplaced,” Blythman writes.

On the flipside, capitalism buffs like Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail have contended the economic boost from quinoa exports is reviving the impoverished communities of Bolivia and Peru.

And Edouard Rollet, co-founder and president of Alter Eco—a company that has spearheaded the fair trade and organic quinoa markets—proposes another perspective. The issue at hand, he says, is not whether or not to develop the quinoa market—it is how it is done:

“Giving the poorest of the poor in Latin America—farmers that grow quinoa—access to income or ‘protecting’ this region from globalization, is a false choice,” he said in a recent conference call, reported Mother Nature Network’s Sami Grover. “It's up to everyone involved, especially companies, to determine if they will operate in a way that fairly benefits those at quinoa's origin—or if they will operate business as usual.”