Quinoa – Shifting the Food Culture

by Sue Taggart

What used to be an inexpensive locally grown food in Bolivia, is now gaining popularity in global markets, as the New York Times covered earlier this year. The demand is soaring in the US and Europe, helping the Bolivian farmers raise their prices, but the trade-off is that fewer Bolivians can now afford it.

This shift demonstrates the consequences of rising global food prices and changing eating habits in both developing and prosperous countries. Quinoa prices have almost tripled over the past five years and in that time consumption in Bolivia of this staple food fell by 34% according to the country’s agricultural ministry.

This “lost crop” of the Incas has a highly nutritional balance of protein and amino acids, which made it a perfect food in a country that has long struggled with malnutrition. Now that fewer Bolivians can afford it, they are turning to cheaper, processed foods thereby increasing the incidences of chronic malnutrition in children in the quinoa growing areas.

While there is concern, rising exports have lifted living standards for quinoa farmers. Before if became so popular in foreign markets, many people were going to Argentina and Chile to find work, but now, with the rising prices, many city dwellers are returning to their plots of land during planting and harvesting season.

Quinoa has been continuously cultivated in the South American Andes since 3,000 B.C. as well as can be estimated. The ancient Incas called it “the mother grain” and revered it as sacred. Researchers believe it comes close to being the perfect food because of its abundance of essential nutrients. It’s ability to grow and thrive in areas where most other food crops fail have led to its widespread popularity among the native population of the Andean altiplano.

Quinoa is probably of greater importance in Bolivia than Peru because of the more prominent indigenous cultures. Where there are an abundance of urban “whites” native food products are looked down upon and even the government’s food policies tended to downplay traditional crops. That is until now! Government officials are now trying to increase domestic quinoa consumption, even in the face of steep competition from other foods such as noodles or white rice, which are about a quarter of the price of quinoa.

There are now government programs being developed in Bolivia to aid organic quinoa producers and the health officials there are incorporating it into food packages distributed to pregnant and nursing women. It is also being made available for school meals and for the armed forces.
While many younger people are moving away from traditional foods like quinoa in favor of more Western products such as white bread, white rice and Coca-Cola, the government and the older generation are working to keep quinoa as part of the food culture despite its soaring price tag.

For a complete quinoa nutritional profile you can link to: www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=nutrientprofile&dbid=143

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