IPE Course Blog 1: Bolivian Quinoa in the Global Market

This blog post is for my graduate International Political Economy course and is based on readings we (my classmates and I) were assigned. We are currently reading a book called “Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy” by Pietra Rivoli among various articles. This is something that I am graded on and all the opinions expressed here are my own. 

In the past several weeks, we have been examining the dynamics of international political economy and the myriad actors, institutions, and legislation that play roles in it. More recently, we’ve studied international trade agreements and regulatory bodies, so in this blog post, I want to look at the trade of a particular commodity, the Andean super-food, quinoa. My motivation for honing in on an agricultural good lies in my interest in land management and sustainable farming practices, namely in the Andean region of South America. The story of quinoa also features many all of the colorful characters we have grown to know in our study of IPE.

In recent years, the grain quinoa has gained international popularity as a highly nutritious, versatile food. Consumption in industrialized countries has skyrocketed, but despite the international fame, quinoa is still grown almost exclusively in the Andes. In this part of the world, quinoa has been a staple part of the diet for thousands of years, but the recent explosion in demand has caused some controversy. Some claim that this boost is harming Andean countries because the price of quinoa has risen by a factor of 8, while others are lauding exports as a boon to small scale quinoa producers, especially in Bolivia which is the least developed country in the region. This post will focus on a few important elements of the quinoa problem. I will look at how quinoa is changing the economies and diets of Andean countries before looking at the emerging idea of growing quinoa in other places. I also want to look at the role of governments in the quinoa boom, specifically how they are protecting growers and the environments in their countries. For simplicity’s sake, I want to limit this post’s focus to one country in the region, Bolivia. As I stated earlier, it is the least developed country in the region and a place whose agricultural practices and trends I am very familiar with.

Just over half of Bolivians live below the global poverty line of 2 USD per day. Though migration to urban centers has been growing in recent years, there are still remote, small farming communities scattered throughout the high mountains, across the Altiplano, and in the eastern jungles. Most Bolivian farmers are small scale, even subsistence, farmers who for the most part still plow their fields with livestock and a manual plow. Bolivia is also home to one of the highest indigenous populations in the Americas, so many of these farmers also do not speak Spanish as their first language, nor is the majority literate. Quinoa, it would appear, is a blessing to these farmers and on the surface, it is. Some farmers have been able to purchase vehicles or farming equipment that make their lives easier and more efficient. In some cases, people who have migrated to the city for work are able to return to their small hometowns to take advantage of the boom. But, digging a little deeper exposes some pretty unnerving realities. With so many farmers taking advantage of the crop’s popularity, there is a danger of environmental damage. Traditional farming methods (crop rotation, fertilization methods, etc) are being ignored, especially by newer farmers and there is a possibility that quinoa is pushing out other crops important to the Bolivian economy and diet.

On the whole, however, the extra income from quinoa is beneficial. The Bolivian government has been taking advantage of demand by implementing subsidies for farmer and other benefits geared toward increasing production. To combat the high prices of quinoa negatively effecting Bolivians, the government has nutritional programs in place to keep quinoa in the diets of children and child-bearing women. Even so, the price of quinoa is very prohibitive. At my local grocery store, a kilo of rice is about 15 Bolivianos (2 USD) while a kilo of quinoa is about 40 Bolivianos (5 USD). I rarely see quinoa on the menu at restaurants and the only time I do is when it is suspended in broth with vegetables as sopa de quinoa, a practice that minimizes the amount of quinoa needed in a recipe.

So, there are definitely pros and cons to ramped up quinoa production and export in Bolivia, but what will happen if the happy days don’t last? Because of the explosive demand by so many industrialized countries, attempts to grow quinoa in other places around the world are currently underway. Quinoa is a very hardy plant; it needs little water, a lot of llama manure, and sunshine. It can theoretically be grown in a number of climates and locations around the world, so what will happen if quinoa comes to a field near you? A boost in production will likely cause the global price to drop. The popularity will drive large corporations like Monsanto to drop in on the quinoa party, so any traditional ties quinoa has to its native region will be ostensibly severed. Small farmers in Bolivia will find that their farms aren’t as lucrative as they once were and migration to cities will increase.

Luckily, the Bolivian government, in particular the Morales administration, is taking precautions and so are the farmers in Bolivia. Quinoa is not just recognized as an important economic commodity, but also as something that is tied to the history and culture of the region. Another thing tied to the culture of the region is a well-founded distrust in industrialized countries, particularly the United States. Farmers in Bolivia refuse to share their seeds with outside parties and the government is less than keen on sharing thousands of years of quinoa-growing expertise with the people who jammed destructive neo-liberal economic policies down their throats for decades. To add another layer of protection, the Bolivians are in the process of trademarking their quinoa, an act that will brand Andean quinoa as the genuine article, the true “Mother Grain”.

To conclude, I cannot be more excited about the future of quinoa. It has a fascinating history and a bright future. It looks like Bolivia is trying to take all the right actions to protect their growers from the powers of the world market; no matter how detrimental the cons of environmental degradation may be in the future, at least there will be a strong foundation laid for an agricultural industry that can play on the global scale. 

For further information:

Bertelli, M., & Sauras, J. (2013, July 25). Quinoa boom a mixed blessing for bolivians. Retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/07/201371013540775237.html

Flores, P. (2013, Febru 20). Boom in quinoa demand stresses bolivia highlands. Retrieved from http://bigstory.ap.org/article/boom-quinoa-demand-stresses-bolivia-highlands

Guarino, L. (2011, March 28). The quinoa story: it’s complicated. Retrieved from http://agro.biodiver.se/2011/03/the-quinoa-story-its-complicated/

Charles, D. (2013, Augus 15). Can quinoa farming go global without leaving andeans behind?. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2013/08/15/212342707/can-quinoa-farming-go-global-without-leaving-andeans-behind



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