Global Quinoa and Andean Foodways
Cover photo: Field of potatoes that will be seeded with quinoa the following season. Photo by Fabiana Li.
Variously advertised as an “ancient grain,” “superfood,” or “grain of the future,” quinoa has become a highly desired global commodity. Once grown primarily by campesinos in the Andes for their own consumption, it is now commonly featured in restaurant menus and supermarkets in urban centers around the world. Some health-conscious consumers emphasize quinoa’s nutritional value: it is high in protein, gluten-free, and suitable for today’s variety of dietary needs. We could just call it clever branding, but the recent fascination with quinoa extends beyond marketing trends targeting food enthusiasts. Scientists and development experts have also taken an interest in quinoa’s potential as a crop to feed the world. Quinoa’s adaptability to different climates and growing conditions make it an important crop in the face of climate change, and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has called it “our new ally against hunger.”1 The FAO promoted its consumption and production around the world and touted quinoa’s potential as a tool for economic development. These various attributes contributed to the United Nations designating 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa.
The promise of quinoa – tied to its purported nutritional, environmental, and economic potential – has contributed to its global popularity. What is less certain, however, is whether these benefits reach the Andean communities that have traditionally depended on quinoa and continue to grow it. In this article, we examine how some Aymara communities in Puno, Peru have experienced the globalization of quinoa. We focus on the challenges that campesinos face as they continue their traditional agricultural practices in a global economy that disadvantages small producers. We also explore the place of quinoa in the household economy and changes in diet that have minimized – but not eliminated – the importance of quinoa as a traditional food. The revaluation of quinoa in light of its international success raises crucial questions about the role of small farmers in the global food system and the impact of consumer demand for South American quinoa products.
In recent years, quinoa has been the subject of controversy due to the ethical quandaries associated with its increased consumption in North America and Europe. Amidst a flurry of media coverage in the early 2010s (coinciding with the International Year of Quinoa), The Guardian newspaper suggested that an insatiable global appetite for quinoa is putting it out of the reach of the Andean farmers who grow it.2 This argument has been surprisingly resilient, even though more recent studies have revealed the complex consequences of the “quinoa boom.”3
The idea that Andean farmers are being priced out of their traditional food continues to trouble guilt-ridden consumers who wonder how the demand for quinoa affects the livelihoods of small farmers. These concerns signal an increased awareness about the impact of our food choices and a growing interest in “ethical eating” in response to the environmental crisis and global inequality. But making a direct link between increased quinoa consumption in “wealthy” countries and lack of access to it in traditional quinoa-growing communities overstates a cause-and-effect relationship while disregarding history, changes in production and consumption over time, and the agency of farmers who make choices about how best to support their families. Of course, these choices are constrained by a global food system that does not make it easy for small farmers to earn a good price for their harvests or to access a variety of healthy foods.
This article draws on our anthropological research in quinoa-growing communities in the Lake Titicaca region, where quinoa originated. We visited communities and interviewed farmers in Puno, Peru in 2012 during the early stages of the quinoa boom (Urdanivia) and in 2019 after quinoa prices and demand had leveled off (Li). Our research highlighted the diversity of experiences of farmers who grow quinoa for subsistence and for the market. In Aymara communities that practice traditional agriculture, the increased demand for quinoa has had mixed effects on people’s livelihoods. On the one hand, small farmers’ high expectations of quinoa as a profit-making crop have not been met, and many small farmers have not had access to the kind of government support, training, and investment required to compete in the global market. On the other hand, the growing market demand for quinoa has coincided with a revalorization of the Andean crop by people across the world, including researchers and everyday consumers, which has renewed interest in quinoa production and consumption in rural communities.
Quinoa in the campesino household economy
On a crisp September day at the start of the planting season, Luisa and Cesar, a couple in their 30s from the campesino community of Juli, prepared their land for quinoa seeding. They used hand tools, working seamlessly alongside one another, making this difficult task appear effortless. Luisa and Cesar owned a small but not insignificant amount of land: 8 hectares that allowed them to plant the essential crops of the region. These include potatoes, quinoa, grains such as oat or barley, and leguminous plants. According to the typical system of crop rotation (known as aynoka in Aymara), these crops are planted in succession each year, after which the land is ideally allowed to rest for 4 to 5 years. The communal aynoka system is designed to preserve soil fertility, and does not lend itself to intensive agriculture or large-scale export production. Even in their individual plots of land, farmers typically employ this crop rotation system, although recently there has been a major reduction in fallow periods.
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The microclimate of Lake Titicaca, with slightly warmer temperatures than other high-altitude quinoa-growing regions, allows for fishing and the cultivation of a wider variety of crops. Yet despite the advantage of a microclimate, Aymara communities along the lakeside region experience significant pressure on land resources, which limits their production. Campesino communities in Puno are characterized by minifundios (smallholdings) or fractured parcels that have been divided up among families with each generation, and many farmers have only minimal access to arable land. Campesinos face other challenges due to the changing climate and unpredictable growing conditions. Untimely rains, hail, frost, pests and disease can impact quinoa crops, and depending on the year, farmers might only produce enough for their own family’s consumption, with a small amount left over for sale. Each year, a portion of the harvests is stored for future consumption, thus contributing to food security in case of a bad harvest in the coming years.
Luisa and Cesar said they were glad to grow quinoa because it contains important vitamins and keeps them well fed. In spite of that, the couple noted that they only ate quinoa once a week because they didn’t have enough time to prepare it. In addition to post-harvest processing (drying, cleaning, and storing the seeds), home-grown quinoa must be washed numerous times in order to remove the saponins that give it a bitter taste. Quinoa cultivated by Aymara farmers in Puno has been traditionally destined for home consumption, but campesinos have experienced a shift in dietary habits over the years. The most notable changes include using rice in place of quinoa; wheat to replace artisanal flour made from quinoa; and pasta to replace quinoa and other cereals that were traditionally used for soups. Typical dishes using quinoa are still prepared (especially after the harvest and for special occasions), but the convenience and availability of other foods like rice and pasta often makes them more attractive than quinoa, especially for the younger generation.
Some North American consumers are concerned about that the global appetite for quinoa is taking it away from campesinos who grow it, but the shifts in dietary patterns in Andean communities are not new. Rather, changes in eating habits result from decades of changes in land tenure and the local economy: the breakup of hacienda system, rural-urban migration, wage-labor, and food aid programs have all affected the consumption of traditional foods. Over time, campesinos have transitioned from a diet based on what was produced on the land to one that incorporates foods from the market. Of course, quinoa farmers are not a homogenous group, and there are many factors that produce socio-economic differences and influence food consumption: the quantity and quality of land cultivated, the number of livestock owned, off-farm labor, and other non-farm business activities that complement their livelihoods and generate cash for food and household purchases.
Part two of this report will be published next week.
1. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2013, February 20). Launch of the International Year of Quinoa. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/170254/icode/
2. Blythman, Joanna. (2013, January 16). Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa? Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jan/16/vegans-stomach-unpalatable-truth-quinoa
3. Tanya M. Kerssen (2015) Food sovereignty and the quinoa boom: challenges to sustainable re-peasantisation in the southern Altiplano of Bolivia, Third World Quarterly, 36:3, 489-507, DOI: 10.1080/01436597.2015.1002992