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Quinoa Farming Practices Push Consumers Toward Fair Trade

3p Contributor | Monday January 28th, 2013 | 6 Comments

quinoaBy Nellie Stadtherr

A few days ago I set out on my weekly shopping adventure as usual, the Farmer’s Market for seasonal veggies, Whole Foods for my other produce, grains and specialty items, and Trader Joe’s for everything else. To my extreme dismay, none of my spots had celery, zucchini, or asparagus. Not a stalk to be found. Southern California’s “arctic blast” (read: 50 degrees) had devastated the crops. And me. How was I supposed to make soup without celery to mingle with the myriad of organic veggies, organic boxed broth, and free range turkey breast? How could it be palatable without such a key ingredient?

How crazy is it that we can walk into any store and buy pretty much whatever we want, regardless of the season or if the product grows in our country, let alone our state? It’s even crazier that I go to three different locations to buy my food “needs.” And the craziest thing is that I would be upset over a celery drought.

So, when I read an article in The Guardian the next day discussing how the Western food trend of quinoa was driving poverty in the regions the grain (well, actually it’s a seed) is sourced from, I felt like a real consumerist jerk. I’ve been a gluten-free health nut for over a decade, and I eat a lot of quinoa. How much damage have I done during my pursuit of protein-packed whole grain goodness?

According to the article by Joanna Blythman, the demand for quinoa by developed countries has caused the price for the grain to increase so much that the poorer Peruvian and Bolivian locals can’t afford it anymore. And unlike us, who choose quinoa to enjoy its health benefits and flavor, these locals depend on the nutritional powerhouse as a staple food.

In Peru, the poorest part of the country is the Andes where quinoa is grown. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) estimates over 4.475 million people (over 50 percent of the population) living in rural Peru are impoverished. These people are now turning to imported junk food to replace quinoa because it is so much cheaper. Not exactly an even trade, health-wise.

So what can we socially/health-conscious consumers do? Feel guilty with every nutty bite? I don’t think eliminating quinoa from our diets would benefit us or rural farmers…while Western demand has driven the cost in local markets, it has also driven economic growth in producing countries. It is good to purchase goods from rural farmers. If they are paid fairly, the impact of supporting them creates a domino effect of health and economic benefits for their communities. So what we can do is influence the market with our purchasing power.

Global agricultural value chains are complex, especially with crops such as quinoa, which are cultivated in poor, rural regions of developing countries. Farmers often have little to no access to current market prices, tools or education for best farming practices, or transportation to get to market centers. This leaves farmers at the mercy of collectors and traders who purchase the crops for much below market value and sell them to larger traders/exporters at a higher margin, which they sell in return for an even higher margin to Western distributors/brands.

Farmers are certainly getting the short end of the stick. Yes, they are making money from the sale of their crops, but are not being paid a fair price. Considering the exorbitant increase in demand for quinoa exports over the past decade, if farmers were getting their fair share of the pie their economic development would be more on par with the rest of the country.

Of course not all quinoa we purchase is “unethical quinoa.” According to IFAD, roughly 20,0000 families have moved from “subsistence farming… enabl[ing] many to increase their financial and physical assets…” This has been accomplished through IFAD’s programs focused on empowering farmers through education and technology and increasing local ownership of land and crops. These are the kinds of systems that create opportunity out of global markets. These are the reasons we should purchase internationally-sourced products.

But how do we know where our quinoa comes from and how the small farmers are being paid?  This is where Fair Trade makes a big difference. As consumers, this symbol ensures that the market chain is not exploiting farmers. And while getting Fair Trade Certified can be an arduous process, the small step of establishing a few farms as Fair Trade can shift the entire value chain.

For example, if a few local farmers are working with a Fair Trade exporter (who invests in the process), other farmers will become aware of the price and opportunities. As Western demand for Fair Trade quinoa increases, exporters will expand their network of farmers. This will pressure the other traders/collectors who have been underpaying to begin paying farmers outside of the Fair Trade network higher prices for their crops so they don’t become obsolete from the chain.

Of course, buying Fair Trade directly is the best way to support farmers and your humanitarian ideology. Brands such as AlterEco, La Yapa, and Andean Naturals offer Fair Trade Certified quinoa from Bolivian and Peruvian farmers.

So, while the American Whole Grains Council encourages quinoa consumption, stating “…even as you are improving your own health by eating delicious, nutritious quinoa, you can feel good that your purchase of this very special whole grain is doing good elsewhere, too,” and the president of the Quinoa Corporation of LA claimed in the New York Times “It’s kind of discouraging to see stuff like this happen, but that’s part of life and economics,” this is clearly a more difficult conundrum than what to pair with quinoa for the night.

If we are enjoying the nutritional benefits of quinoa, shouldn’t the civilizations that have grown and depended on it for centuries be able to do the same? The answer is undoubtedly, yes. The solution begins with us resisting the ease of ignorance. If you can afford $4.50 a pound on a “luxury” grain, can’t you afford a few bucks more for Fair Trade and know that your small purchase here can make a world of difference somewhere else?

[image credit: Emily Barney: Flickr cc]


▼▼▼      6 Comments     ▼▼▼

Categorized: Agriculture & Food|

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  • Alter Eco

    We would like to thank you for shedding light on Fair Trade and sustainable sourcing of quinoa. In lieu of recent articles regarding quinoa and the effects it has, we encourage readers to read why sustainable sourcing of quinoa is good for you and the farmer as well as our accounts as a Fair Trade and organic supplier of quinoa here: http://www.alterecofoods.com/blog/alter-eco-quinoa

    With historical roots stemming in deep political trials and tribulations, it is hard to pin point one cause or even one effect of a growing demand for quinoa. Because there really has been no reliable statistical evidence recorded for years, it’s impossible to prove much of what has been regurgitated in many articles floating around the web. It is difficult to measure impact and even more difficult to measure the market in a country that is very broken.

    Sustainable sourcing of quinoa has the potential to change many lives and eradicate poverty, but that will not happen overnight– it takes time and a lot of work. When discursive and misleading rumors arise, the market drops and the farmers will fall back into poverty.

    • Nellie Stadtherr

      Thank you for your comment! I appreciate your efforts and sharing the benefits of Fair Trade. From what I understand, the certification process requires diligence and dedication.. to your product and the people you work with!

      I have always been an advocate of ethically globally sourced products… I do believe in the power of purchasing locally when the product makes sense (ie produce), but also love the idea of turning our Western consumerism into a path for empowering those around the planet who will benefit tremendously from our support…A post I wrote in 2011 discusses that in more depth (http://www.triplepundit.com/2011/05/smarter-consumer/).

      Thank you again for your comment!

  • Christopher Barden

    I run a program that helps young agriculturalists become professionals by getting them paid internships. The majority of our participants come from developing nations, spend one year on an American farms, and then return home to put their new skills to use.

    As such, I am keenly aware of the troubles facing farmers from developing nations. I also live in CA (and in case you didn’t know it gets considerably colder than 50 degrees here which is why your celery was unavailable. It froze!) where a great many people have jumped on board the quinoa bandwagon. The real benefit of that article is that it got folks thinking, just like yourself. I was quite happy to read it.

    Certainly you are correct that we can probably spend a bit more for a Fair Trade label. The trouble here is that many consumers are completely detached from their food sources and tend towards thinking that if it is labeled fair trade it is either inferior in some manner or it supports an agenda they are politically against.

    When I posted that article at my Facebook page I was inundated with comments and messages. The comments were all thanking me for sharing the impact quinoa consumption may have on the farmers and local populace. The messages were a bit different. They were largely negative and accused me of trying to influence the free market with my leftist agenda. Where they think I am leftist I am not quite sure, but, they are convinced.

    It is a complex situation and I thank you for raising the issue.

    • Nellie Stadtherr

      Hi Christopher,

      Thank you for your comment… I appreciate your perspective and applaud your program. When I was working with farmers in rural Indonesia it became glaringly obvious that one of the biggest challenges was the farmer’s lack of access to best practices and education of tools and technology. Training participants through internships sounds like a great way to sustainably embed skills in developing regions.

      I agree that the disconnect between source and consumer is an issue… As I alluded to in my post, I think most consumers are naive to the complexity of agricultural market chains. That’s why I think Fair Trade Certification is helpful… I don’t think it’s a logical answer for all farmers or commodities, nor is the process foolproof. I do think it helps to transform the market and provide the consumers who are concerned with these issues with some peace of mind and, hopefully, encourage other consumers to think more about sourcing of their foods and how they can make a difference!

      Why do you think that some consumers attribute Fair Trade to an inferior product? As a long time advocate of ethically-sourced products, I struggle to understand this perspective, though I do agree it exists. It’s funny because organic has the opposite effect… people (even if they don’t understand the organic certification process) often attribute organic as better. Do you think this is because organic has been a part of our continued move along the LOHAS spectrum for longer? Or do people think Fair Trade is of a lower quality because the products often don’t come with a recognizable brand?

  • http://www.triplepundit.com Nick Aster

    Great analysis of a fairly simplistic Guardian article!

  • Edgar

    It’s strange because Fair Trade does not earn farmers more money, it earns the producer association more money, and when buying Alter-Eco, it is invested in competitive advantage not small-farmers.