Having My Quinoa and Eating it Too

Last Sunday's New York Times offered up a heaping plate of complexity to its readers in their analysis of the impact on farmers and other Bolivians of quinoa's growing popularity with richer American and European consumers.

But while Bolivians have lived off it for centuries, quinoa remained little more than a curiosity outside the Andes for years, found in health food shops and studied by researchers -- until recently.

Now demand for quinoa (pronounced KEE-no-ah) is soaring in rich countries, as American and European consumers discover the "lost crop" of the Incas. The surge has helped raise farmers' incomes here in one of the hemisphere's poorest countries. But there has been a notable trade-off: Fewer Bolivians can now afford it, hastening their embrace of cheaper, processed foods and raising fears of malnutrition in a country that has long struggled with it.

I can sympathize with my European and American brethren as I recently scarfed-down, and thoroughly enjoyed, a delicious plate of curried quinoa salad with mango. And yes, I am aware I just outted myself as a yuppie (what's up, Park Slope Food Co-op!).

This convoluted tale of how the growing international appeal of an important local staple has changed life for many Bolivians gets to the difficulty of fixing our global food system. There is no silver bullet, even under the best of circumstances. While the increased economic opportunity for Bolivian farmers, many of whom are likely among the poorest and most vulnerable, is an unquestionably positive outcome, achieving that without unintended consequences for poor Bolivian consumers can be tricky. This begs the question: how can I have my quinoa so they can eat it, too?

Boosting domestic production of quinoa in Bolivia is a good place to start. Measures to deal with food price volatility would also help, as it gives Bolivian farmers and consumers the chance to take advantage of growing demand, without the uncertainty that prevents them from reaping the rewards. But mostly, there needs to be the right mixture of policies and investments to help ensure poor Bolivian consumers can sustain a healthy diet. Brazil's policy mixture that includes the Zero Hunger program would be one place to look to as a model for how this can help a country thrive. Brazil shows that while it is possible for the market to work and actually deliver a good deal for farmers, this must go hand-in-hand with programs that give poor consumers a chance at economic success. Otherwise the true benefits and potential of increased demand will go unrealized.

This post originally appeared on The Politics of Poverty blog.