Since quinoa's rise in popularity in the United States and Europe, stories warned about the impact of higher prices on South American farmers, especially in Peru and Bolivia. These two countries account for more than 95 percent of global production. The grain is grown in cool areas of the Andes. We've even examined previously quinoa as a commodity and explored the darker side of the boom as well.
Many of these pieces argue that the native people who have consumed quinoa for generations can no longer afford it. A new study aims to clarify these assumptions and explore how the rising price of this protein-rich grain has impacted farmers and locals in Peru.
Led by Marc Bellemare, an agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota, and Seth Gitter, another economist at Towson University in Maryland, the study set up to provide solid evidence about whether the grain's higher price was affecting locals and farmers — and they found it. "The claim that rising quinoa prices were hurting those who had traditionally produced and consumed it [is] patently false," the study said.
In an interview, Ballemare told Vox about the overall findings of the study:
I think the overall lesson here is that before we make any claims about the effect of changes in our eating patterns, we really need to look at the data rather than speculate in ways that could be counterproductive. Because if we had actually boycotted quinoa, as some people were suggesting at the time, that wouldn't have benefited these households — at least according to our study.
For a reliable source, they used ENAHO. This national survey of 22,000 randomly selected households carried by the Peruvian government shares annually information about what households grow, spend and eat.
Bellemare and his co-authors then used these surveys to split people in Peru into three different groups. They found that the highest increases in welfare were seen in producers, followed by consumers and then households, surprisingly, where the grain was not produced or consumed.
"It's really a happy story," Seth Gitter told NPR. "The poorest people got the gains."
However, let's keep in mind that quinoa is now back down to pre-boom price levels. The study authors worry about the future and what a lower demand can do to those same communities. "If we're going to rejoice when prices go up, maybe we should worry when prices go down," Bellemare told NPR.
Those farmers cashing in on our love of this superfood adapted their crops and income sources to grow more quinoa. They have reduced their llama herds, who used to provide manure and nutrients to the soil, in favor of growing more quinoa and skipping the usual rest period for the land — creating erosion and decrease of nutrients.
In the end it may not be the gloom and doom we've been cautioned about, but the jury may still be out.