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quinoa
Back in 2007-08, those of us engaged in the Obama-Edwards-Clinton debates on this site couldn't shut up about the difference between the candidates on the Peruvian Free Trade Agreement, though that agreement was largely about their duties on importing our goods. Peru's ability to ship agricultural goods here duty-free was established by prior Andean trade preference agreements designed to encourage farmers to grow something other than coca.

And it's worked. Perhaps, too well, as the Guardian (UK) reported yesterday:

Not long ago, quinoa was just an obscure Peruvian grain you could only buy in wholefood shops. ... Sales took off. Quinoa was, in marketing speak, the "miracle grain of the Andes", a healthy, right-on, ethical addition to the meat avoider's larder (no dead animals, just a crop that doesn't feel pain). Consequently, the price shot up – it has tripled since 2006 – with more rarified black, red and "royal" types commanding particularly handsome premiums.

But there is an unpalatable truth to face for those of us with a bag of quinoa in the larder. The appetite of countries such as ours for this grain has pushed up prices to such an extent that poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom it was once a nourishing staple food, can no longer afford to eat it. Imported junk food is cheaper. In Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken. Outside the cities, and fuelled by overseas demand, the pressure is on to turn land that once produced a portfolio of diverse crops into quinoa monoculture.

In fact, the quinoa trade is yet another troubling example of a damaging north-south exchange, with well-intentioned health and ethics-led consumers here unwittingly driving poverty there. It's beginning to look like a cautionary tale of how a focus on exporting premium foods can damage the producer country's food security. Feeding our apparently insatiable 365-day-a-year hunger for this luxury vegetable, Peru has also cornered the world market in asparagus. Result? In the arid Ica region where Peruvian asparagus production is concentrated, this thirsty export vegetable has depleted the water resources on which local people depend. NGOs report that asparagus labourers toil in sub-standard conditions and cannot afford to feed their children while fat cat exporters and foreign supermarkets cream off the profits. That's the pedigree of all those bunches of pricy spears on supermarket shelves.

(Continue reading below the fold.)

The basic theory behind free trade says that when we pay Peruvians more for quinoa than they would pay themselves, then that extra profit works to the benefit of all Peruvians through increased wages, greater ability to purchase locally, etc.  Except as you see both above and the articles below, it kinda is, and kinda isn't.  TIME Magazine, April 2012:

To the added delight of politically correct health nuts, it's produced by small-scale Andean farmers like Huarachi who reap direct benefits of its international popularity. Recently, those benefits have skyrocketed: quinoa's price has tripled since 2006, triggering a boom in the poorest region of South America's poorest country. "Now we've got tractors for our fields and parabolic antennas for our homes," says Huarachi, who's also a board member of Bolivia's largest quinoa-growers association, ANAPQUI.

Growers relish in the moment and the attendant prosperity. "My quinoa sells like hotcakes," says Fidencia Huayllas, grinning. She's spent her boom cash on expanding her mud-and-brick home. Seventy percent of the region's high school graduates can now afford to attend university, Huarachi says, "thanks to quinoa." He leans forward, face brightening: "In 1983, 100 lb. of quinoa sold for 25 bolivianos — the price a T-shirt. Now that sack goes for $100 [700 bolivianos]. That's a lot of T-shirts."

But the windfall could become a double-edged sword. In February, violence over prime quinoa-growing territory left dozens injured, and land conflict is spreading. "Sure, the price of quinoa is increasing," says Carlos Nina, a local leader in Bolivia's quinoa heartland, "but so are our problems." Apart from increasing feuds over property rights, these include the collapse of the traditional relationship between llama herding and soil fertilization, with potentially disastrous consequences of quinoa's "organic" status, and the ironic twist that the children of newly prosperous farmers no longer like eating quinoa, contributing to dietary problems....

[D]espite good intentions, a dangerous cycle may be under way. "When you transform a food into a commodity, there's inevitable breakdown in social relations and high environmental cost," says Tanya Kerssen, a food-policy analyst for the U.S.-based food and development institute Food First. February's conflict is a harbinger, notes Kerssen. Global warming has led to fewer frosts, resulting in more prime land available for quinoa cultivation. That has led to a near free-for-all. For three days in February, hundreds of farmers fought over what was once abandoned land. Four people were temporarily kidnapped, dozens were injured and, according to local leader Nina, a dynamite blast left one man armless. "I've never seen anything like this in my life," says Nina, 70, adding that since the government is ignoring pleas for military monitoring of the upcoming harvest, the situation will likely worsen.

The Green Plate noted in 2011:
For centuries, it was cultivated the ancient way by communities who could barely scrape a living on the edge of the salt flats that stretch their sterile canvas between mountain peaks. Now, for the first time ever, those communities can afford to send some of their children to college. Elsewhere, other groups are rediscovering the ancient art of growing quinoa, occasionally with the help of Western organizations and individuals, supplementing their diet with this super-food while reaping the bounties of the expanding global market.

Interestingly enough, quinoa growers seem to be relatively protected from business predators, Peruvian smugglers notwithstanding. “Quinoa fetches a guaranteed high price affording farmers economic stability. This economic power has also translated into political power though producers’ associations and cooperatives,” writes Emma Banks, of The Andean Information Network. “Since the 1970s, these organizations have worked toward greater producer control of the market, spurring other political actions such as blockades and protests for greater economic and environmental rights in quinoa-growing regions.” (my emphasis) It’s also worth noting that, given its ecological profile, quinoa does not lend itself to large-scale intensive farming, remaining the exclusive prerogative of small farmers so far. In that context, distributors have developed trusted relationships with their suppliers, building their business on a model that aims to revitalize and sustain local communities. American company Inca Organics has done so in Ecuador. French fair-trade importer Alter Eco, among others, has been working with growers in Bolivia. It remains to be seen whether their values will be upheld as the growth of the market lures big players in the game.

Now, what about reports that Bolivians can’t afford quinoa anymore because of the price inflation caused by the explosion in global demand? There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that makes me cringe. I, the wealthy consumer in the North, haven’t failed to notice that the price of quinoa more than doubled since I started buying it over five years ago. I haven’t reduced my consumption however. Now, should I quit, and encourage everyone I know to do the same so as to alleviate the pressure on demand, hence on price, that affects consumers in the countries of production?

I don't have an answer for this, but I thought some here might be interested in thinking this through.

Originally posted to Adam B on Thu Jan 17, 2013 at 09:04 AM PST.

Also republished by DK GreenRoots and Daily Kos.

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