Conflict and controversy stain South America’s profitable quinoa market

. Feb 16, 2021
Quinoa Plantation In Uyuni, Bolivia. Quinoa Plantation In Uyuni, Bolivia. Photo: Weeraporn Puttiwongrak/Shutterstock

The Inca people first appeared in the 12th century, in what is now southeastern Peru. In a short space of time, they developed a well-organized civilization which stood for some 300 years. Long before they were invaded and conquered by the Spanish in the 1500s, the Incan Empire was well versed in agriculture, building an economic system highly dependent on the cultivation of Andean grains. One of their most prized crops was quinoa, still known today as “the sacred cereal of the Incas,” or “Incan gold.”

The nutritious commodity has seen a massive resurgence in the 21st century, due to its superior health properties.

But it is a socioeconomic legacy of Peru, led by its ancient Amerindian peoples. In 2020, Peru was the world&#8217;s top producer of quinoa, according to the Peruvian Agricultural Development and Irrigation Ministry (Midagri).</p> <p>Tipping its Andean neighbors Bolivia to the quinoa top spot last year, almost 70,000 small producers — mainly in the highlands of the Andes — have turned to farming the grain as a means of economic gain. Between January and September 2020, quinoa exports added up to over USD 100 million.&nbsp;</p> <p>Along with <a href="">Bolivia</a>, Peru produces over 90 percent of the world&#8217;s quinoa, and Peru alone exports to more than 70 countries around the world. With the strength of the U.S.&#8217; health food market, Peru shipped more than 14,000 tons of quinoa to the country in 2019.</p> <p>Peruvian authorities explain that, as well as being profitable and easy to grow in the Andean climate, quinoa cultivation has been crucial to local farmers during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has hit Peru particularly hard. In fact, the country has South America&#8217;s highest per capita mortality rate from the disease, with 1,294 deaths for every 1 million inhabitants.</p> <p>One of the reasons for Peru&#8217;s own coronavirus epidemic hitting so hard is that 71 percent of the country&#8217;s workforce hold informal jobs, making social isolation or furlough schemes almost impossible to enforce. Quinoa farming, however, is far less affected by Covid-19 restrictions, as crops grow best in remote areas.&nbsp;</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/5312628"><script src=""></script></div> <h2>Side effects of the miracle grain</h2> <p>The conditions in the Andean regions of Peru and Bolivia are ideal for growing quinoa, the grain NASA experts have called the &#8220;most complete&#8221; foodstuff in the world.</p> <p>But, similar to the <a href="">blood-stained avocado industry in Mexico</a>, the production of the sacred Incan grain is also marred by territorial disputes between producers and complaints of previously fertile grounds being intentionally degraded.</p> <p>The United Nations has already waded into one of these quinoa conflicts in the past. In 2012, three peasants from the northern Bolivian city of Potosí were taken hostage in conflicts related to quinoa farming. UN representatives in Bolivia were brought in to mediate the conflict, shedding light on the murky underworld hidden within the Andes&#8217; snow-capped peaks.</p> <p>However, these conflicts are largely ignored by the press, leaving producers in Peru and Bolivia to work in uncertain situations, while the global health food market makes a killing from selling quinoa products.</p> <h2>The grain of the future</h2> <p>The challenge is to balance the profitable quinoa market with sustainability and stability, as the demand for quinoa worldwide <a href=",of%20total%20exports%20in%202018.&amp;text=The%20U.S.%20(4%2C434%20tonnes)%2C,little%20share%20of%20total%20exports.">continues to increase</a>. According to Diego Macera, director of the Peruvian Institute of Economics (IPE), the adaptation of the quinoa market will need to come from the side of demand, rather than supply. The solution, he says, is a stricter market focused on green principles.&nbsp;</p> <p>“International markets are increasingly demanding environmental and labor standards for their imports. Despite the enormous agro-export boom of the last 10 years in the Andean region, this has occurred in coastal valleys, with a more traditional, less productive, and sometimes more polluting agriculture than in mountain areas where quinoa grows. The challenge is to continue increasing technology and achieving value chains in quinoa, like what happened in other agricultural markets,” Mr. Macera tells <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.&nbsp;</p> <p>Quinoa production is already considered to be an economic dilemma. As consumers become even keener on the grain — with global exports surpassing USD 314 million in the last five years — production in these developing Latin American nations is forced to scale up at an impossible pace, regardless of the environmental impact.&nbsp;</p> <p>Pre-pandemic estimates had demand for quinoa growing roughly 5 percent each year until 2025. And even the global crisis is unlikely to be strong enough to curb the quinoa boom. Mr. Macera believes that quinoa can indeed become one of the &#8220;commodities of the future.&#8221; But this will depend on the industry&#8217;s ability to adapt.</p> <p>“We think that as soon as we manage to solve some supply problems, such as improving productivity and cleaning the chemical waste of quinoa production, the post-pandemic growth could be even higher than expected. And this growth is certain, as eating habits in the U.S. and Europe are changing and more and more families are preparing quinoa at home.”

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Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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