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Don’t Worry: Eating Quinoa Doesn’t Hurt Peruvian Farmers

A new study shows that the grain helps rather than hurts

When quinoa prices rise, do quinoa farmers starve? (HUGHES Herve/Hemis/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

It’s been called “the little cereal that could,” a grain so trendy that it got its own international year and has launched hundreds of health-food products. But quinoa isn’t a new thing: It’s been cultivated in Peru for thousands of years by indigenous peoples of the Andes.

As the crop became popular in the U.S. and Europe in the past decade, rumors that its rising price was shutting out the Andean people who eat it grew. But those worries were unfounded, writes Jeremy Cherfas for NPR: A new study shows that rather than starving Peru’s poor, quinoa’s rise actually helped them.

In a new working paper published by Towson University in Maryland, economists track the rise of quinoa to “superfood” status in rich countries. As the story would have it, Peruvian producers who relied on the pseudo-grain struggled to eat it due to rising quinoa prices that pushed its cost higher than that of chicken and other staples.

But that wasn’t borne out by the numbers. Using a database of Peruvian household information that includes crop and consumption information, the economists were able to look at the relationship between rising quinoa prices and what Peruvian families ate and grew. They compared three groups: people who don’t grow or eat it, people who eat it but don’t grow it, and people who do both.

They found that as the purchase price of quinoa rose, so did household welfare in all three groups. The welfare of those who produced and consumed quinoa rose more quickly than the other two groups, but even families who didn’t produce quinoa saw an effect.

That suggests that rising prices are good for Peruvians across the board. Cherfas notes that another study in Food Policy shows that quinoa farmers did not cut back their own consumption of quinoa, even when prices rose four times. That’s good news for quinoa lovers. 

But something else could threaten Peruvian quinoa farmers: competition. Though Peru finally beat Bolivia as the largest quinoa producer after years of fierce jockeying, it’s already being grown in places like South Africa. And the USA wants to get in on the action, too: The USDA has already awarded over a million dollars in grants for United States research institutions to study the grain in the hopes of commercializing it within the U.S.

Perhaps the future of quinoa is not in Peru, but for now you can eat with the assurance that that spoonful of superfoods isn’t starving another person.

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