This just in from our friend, colleague and occasional subject Hannes Dempewolf. Our thanks to him and all the others that contributed to the discussion on quinoa he initiated.
The New York Times just published an article, entitled “Quinoa’s Global Success Creates Quandary at Home”. The article reminded me of a case study that Damiana Astudillo put together a few years ago as part of Bioversity’s research effort on neglected and underutilized species, which essentially told the same story. Damiana succinctly summarized the conclusion of this study as: “international markets price Bolivians out of the consumer’s market and thus further contributing to malnutrition (among certain segments of the population).” I therefore proceeded to share the article with Damiana as well as a few other colleagues that I knew would be interested and received some interesting replies, including one from Michael Hermann of the recently established Crops for the Future organization, and also from Damiana herself.
Michael begs to differ, and he blames the high production costs of the crop (i.e. low productivity) and the crop’s value chain (insufficient agronomic and post-harvest technologies, insufficient distribution chains, no subsidies) for the price hikes that render quinoa unaffordable for many Bolivians. On the upside, he cites increased incomes for farmers that go along with the higher price of quinoa in the domestic and international marketplace and hopes that Bolivia will see an increase in its middle-class with higher purchasing power, as has happened in neighboring Peru. A wealthier middle-class increasingly turns to purchasing native products, just as the well-to-do have done in industrialized countries. Such up-market niches are where he sees a lot of the current revival and growing market share of native food products. Once such native food products are en vogue again, he hopes for the trend to trickle down to less affluent consumers, who by then can hopefully buy such products at lower costs if increased demand has led to higher efficiency of the value chain and production of the crop.
So, until that happens, less affluent consumers just have to deal with the effects of malnutrition, you may ask? Not so! According to Hermann, consumption levels are so low or non-existent for quinoa and other native grains in Bolivia, prohibitive quinoa prices can’t have much of a nutrition impact. More importantly, Hermann says, one gets significantly more protein, energy and minerals out of wheat products that are offered at a much lower price.
Damiana countered that even addressing some of the inefficiencies in the production system won’t ever allow quinoa to be sold at a lower price than wheat and rice — to a large extent because of enormous subsidies from the producing countries, which seems unlikely to change any time soon. She also adds that the quinoa story is more complex than one might think on a socio-economic level, since she says it is crucial that one distinguishes between urban and rural populations. Bolivians that live in urban settings often have access to a variety of other nutritious foods at affordable prices (such as fruits, vegetables, milk and some meats), whereas this is not true for most people in quinoa producing communities in rural areas of the Bolivian Altiplano. People in rural communities are mostly eating white rice, foods prepared with white flour and non-enriched pasta made of white flour — all of them poor in nutrients. So even though quinoa farmers might have additional income, they cannot spend it on a diverse array of other foods to complement their diets. This is not to say, she further adds, that the promotion of neglected or under-utilized species is a bad idea, since the additional incomes for rural farmers is often used for better education for their kids, but it does provide a useful perspective to the “nostalgic view on neglected and underutilized species” held by some.
Additional problems may arise from the higher prices of quinoa, as people who immigrated a long time ago from quinoa producing areas, lured by the high prices return to the communities to claim back their land to produce quinoa. However, they do not stay in the communities but rather hire local labor and are present only around harvest time. This has created tensions, as those temporary residents are not in the community to participate in community-wide actions such as those required to maintain their certifications or to fight pests through light traps campaigns.
Hermann agrees that the expansion of the quinoa area for export is becoming a problem: but for a different reason, and one that the NY Times article fails to mention. On recent trips in Bolivia he encountered frequently complaints about steadily declining quinoa yields. At the same time, quinoa is expanding into areas unsuited for its cultivation, in order to meet the demand for organically certified produce under various private and public labels. This expansion includes steep and erosion-prone areas. Invariably, Hermann observes, the organic standards only allow the application of organic fertilizers, effectively restricting fertilization to locally available animal dung. Owing to the scarcity of animal dung in the Altiplano (due to low animal densities), the sharp increase of quinoa production in recent years has only been sustained by soil mining (the consistent net extraction of nutrients from the soil) and shortened fallow periods, leading to soil degradation. The decline in soil fertility induced by organically certified quinoa cropping has been observed repeatedly, but commercially motivated demands that the “purity” of quinoa production be maintained and the organic quality standards be met, have prevented a rational, science-based modification of fertilization standards (including the option of the use of mineral fertilizers to replace nutrients removed by harvested produce), that takes into account the radically different soil conditions in the Altiplano from those in Europe, under which the standards have been developed.
So where does this leave us, with regards to the promotion of neglected and underutilized species? If heavy promotion of such crops on international markets leads to higher prices for producers and consumers in the production country, are we better off by not promoting them at all? This seems to be an unwise choice, since the lack of attention to those crops has led to the current problem of inefficient value chains, low crop productivity and in some cases the complete abandonment of the species in the first place. I suggest that targeted investments in crop improvement programs, conservation efforts as well as the development of agronomic techniques for such species are essential to boosting their productivity. In addition, these improvements need to go hand in hand with sound socio-economic policies that are informed by cautionary cases, such as the quinoa example, and include interventions that keep the dinner plates of less affluent members of society (also in rural areas) as nutritionally well-balanced as they used to be.