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Is our quinoa consumption hurting Bolivians?

When I read the news in the New York Times about Americans eating record amounts of quinoa, I was heartened. Finally, something in the news about the US and food that didn’t involve junk food and obesity. Below the headline, more good news: The increased demand for quinoa is raising wages of farmers in Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in the world.

And then, a few sentences later buzzed the fly in the ointment: The increased demand for quinoa is raising prices in Bolivia so that natives can no longer afford it and instead many are turning to cheaper processed foods like white rice.  As a result malnutrition rates in the country’s quinoa-growing regions are climbing. Damn, here I was thinking that in addition to eating a healthy food, my quinoa consumption was helping a developing country.

So, are we helping Bolivians or hurting them by eating and selling quinoa?

Obviously helping farmers make more money is a good thing. According to other news reports, some Bolivians who left rural areas for city work are returning to farming because they can earn a living now.

Another positive sign is that the issue is on the government’s radar. It’s providing loans to small farmers and rations are given to pregnant women and children.

I checked in with the people at Trans Fair to see if they were aware of the issue and, sure enough, they were.  According to Paul Rice, President and CEO of Fair Trade USA, funds earned by fair-trade certified National Association of Quinoa Producers farmers are using the money to improve the production of their crops.

So, is our growing quinoa consumption hurting Bolivians? For now, I think the good outweighs the bad. It will be interesting to see how the Bolivian government handles the situation and that could affect my future buying patterns.  I will commit to buying only fair-trade certified quinoa—organic, of course.


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