By 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?