The Lowdown on Peru’s ‘Golden Grain’

By Adam Gamwell and Corinna Howland

This story was originally published at Beacon Reader with my colleague Corinna Howland earlier this year. We are experimenting with storytelling and trying our hand at what we call anthropological journalism, where we bring you news-formatted stories we break ourselves as well as a more in-depth anthropological analyses of the politics and social lives of the people and processes behind the stories. Something typical news outlets don’t offer.

Quinoa for beginners

So you’ve signed up to learn about the world of quinoa. And we’re willing to bet, if you’ve read anything about it in the media, one of the first questions you have for us is: “should I even be eating the stuff?”. In case you haven’t, the story goes like this. A super-healthy and super-trendy alternative grain, quinoa’s rise to fame has been linked by some commentators to declining nutrition in producing countries of Peru and Bolivia, as hugely inflated prices edge local consumers out of the market. Or line farmers’ pockets, depending on who you believe. And suddenly, the question of the golden grain became: golden for who? Six years on from the original media storm, the question endures. And it tells us something important about our consciousness as market consumers. But what it doesn’t tell us is a much more complex story about production, markets, ecosystems, and life at the beginning of the quinoa commodity chain.

The (pseudo)grain that could, did, and might one day again

Quinoa originally comes from the Andes mountain regions of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Its spread throughout South America can be traced to the limits of the Inca Empire, where it formed part of a holy trinity of crops alongside potatoes and maize. Quinoa has been on the international market since the early 1980s, but only recently gained acclaim as the world’s “golden grain” (though actually a “pseudo-cereal”, coming from a plant closely related to spinach). Why this sudden craze?

Arguably, its explosion in popularity began when it was dubbed the latest, greatest “superfood” — a marketing buzzword loosely applied to foods with high nutritional values (though this could include everything from curly kale to the more humdrum carrot). And when Oprah went on a 21-day cleanse that included quinoa. It does, however, have unusually high protein, fibre, magnesium, and calcium content for a pseudo-cereal. It contains all nine amino acids, making it a useful substitute for non-meat eaters. It’s also why NASA wanted to plant it in their space garden back in 1993.

With prices averaging between $6-$9 USD a pound ($12–14 NZD a kilo) for store-brand versions (and potentially double for organic or coloured varieties), quinoa has become ironically and indelibly linked to a ‘healthy’ middle-class lifestyle. “The perfect ingredient to turn to after a season of excess”, gushes famed British chef Yotam Ottolenghi, peddling “gorgeous” recipes for quinoa pancakes with soured cream and chives. In a recent Buzzfeed article, totting up the 31 most middle-class things to have ever happened, the grain gets three separate mentions; this year it even starred in its own comedy show dedicated to “middle-class banter”.

Why this stereotype? It’s expensive — putting it out of the reach of many consumers; it’s exotic and unpronounceable, “the grain that dare not speak its name” — appealing to cosmopolitan tastes seeking novelty and rarity; and it links the ethics of healthy eating to the politics of conscious consumerism.

Quinoa Samples. Photo: Adam Gamwell

As the anthropologist Clare Sammels states, quinoa is “good to think” for Western consumers. It’s an “ancient grain” only recently made available for purchase (unlike the potato and maize, Andean staples which have been on world markets for more than 500 years). And in the process, it has allegedly changed the lives and livelihoods of ‘poor Andean farmers’. For some, this is a boom crop that has offered unimaginable opportunities for small-scale quinoa growers. Others argue that Western demand has pushed prices up, meaning local consumers can’t afford the grain and are stuck with poor, imported nutritional substitutes like rice and noodles. Quinoa becomes a vehicle to help us explore sometimes-uncomfortable connections to others, weighing up the potentials and pitfalls of an interconnected global economy of so-called ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.

A fresh perspective?

Up until 2015, it appeared that Peruvian and Bolivian quinoa producers were winning. From its emergence on the international stage in the 1980s, quinoa’s prices have been consistently rising. In 1997, it became the most expensive grain on the world market, and in 2008, prices reached $1000 USD per metric ton (the same year Oprah took her cleanse). It doubled again by 2010, and by 2013, when the United Nations declared the International Year of Quinoa, it peaked at $8,000 per metric ton. The future of the quinoa market looked like a sure bet.

But then the game changed.

This year prices have bottomed in Peru, sucking quinoa into the same boom and bust cycles of other global commodities. In 2014, farmers could command up to $50 USD for an arroba (11.5kgs) of white quinoa and up to $75 for red quinoa and black quinoa. Today prices have dropped to around $8.50 per arroba, meaning one ton of quinoa fetches around $740. A stark drop from the commanding price of $8,000 in 2014.

So today in 2016, while your bag of quinoa will cost you between $6 and $9 at Whole Foods if shopping in the United States, quinoa farmers are getting paid so little, they are questioning whether it is even worth it to be selling quinoa. And some aren’t. Many Puneño farmers are holding on to their supplies in the hopes of a better return for their labours.

The view from the South

On the Path to the Quinoa Fields. Photo: Adam Gamwell

Puno, where we are based, is one of the major quinoa-producing regions in Peru (the southernmost department, it shares a border and a lake with Bolivia). But in addition to neighboring Bolivia, Puno now has to compete with new agribusinesses that have emerged in coastal regions for a slice of the shrinking (quinoa) pie. On the Peruvian coast, large plantations of monocropped quinoa fill the landscape, sustained through heavy irrigation, pesticide and fertilizer use. Whereas here, most farmers have less than 5 hectares of small parcels to rub together.

And in Puno quinoa is by no means a monocrop. Potatoes are the most important staple, and quinoa is grown alongside habas (Lima beans), barley, and alfalfa, while farmers also keep small herds of sheep, cattle, and the occasional pig to slaughter or to fatten up and sell. Many men now work in jobs outside of their home villages, and women supplement family or personal income by knitting elaborate jumpers for the tourist market. This is what’s known as a mixed economy, where various forms of revenue contribute piecemeal to the farmer’s purse.

But who are these farmers? Don Bernardo is 76, lives alone, and is working on a business plan to boost local production and bring more income to his community. He also has more energy than most young people we’ve met. He attributes this to a daily diet of quinoa.

Señora Amelia produces quinoa and other crops with her neighbors in private plots as well as on communal land known in Aymara as an aynok’a. She also runs a small kiosk selling hats, sweaters, and trinkets for tourists by the shores of Lake Titicaca, shuttling back and forth between city and country several times weekly to tend her fields and shop. She’s a member of a newly-formed quinoa cooperative struggling to get off the ground. They are in their second year of organic certification, but have yet to make any sales.

Señor Gaston is known as the ‘rock-star’ of quinoa, starring in tourism advertisements in the Jorge Chavez airport in Lima. He is as much conservationist as traditional farmer, priding himself on maintaining over 40 varieties of quinoa and preserving agrobiodiversity for future generations.

Working aside these farmers are a small army of agricultural scientists and engineers contracted to various projects, including the production and value chain of quinoa. These field agents connect farmers to buyers, offer capacity-building workshops such as how to create organic fertilizer, to increase market competitiveness, and to deal with a changing climate.

Quinoa also finds itself at the center of international attention. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, work with high-level government ministries to run years-long programs aimed at improving farmer competitiveness and production output for export markets. Meanwhile conservation NGOs are trying to offer incentives to preserve non-marketable varieties of quinoa, in the name of local biodiversity and crop resilience.

What’s next for Peru’s ‘golden’ grain?

As the first installment in this series, we wanted to offer you an introduction to what’s happening with quinoa production right now in Puno, Peru. As we move forward, we will bring you in-depth stories about each of the people mentioned as well as the institutions, NGOs, and social processes that are having a huge impact on the quinoa landscape. Though prices tanked this past year, farmers, scientists, and marketers are working harder than ever, leaving the future wide open for the grain that could, and did, and just might again.

Adam and Corinna on interview. Photo: Adam Gamwell

Originally published on Beacon Reader where you can read more stories on Peruvian Quinoa and Food Futures.

Design + Business Anthropologist | Storyteller | Podcaster & Host of This Anthro Life | Musician | Sometimes Zen | Co-founder of Missing Link Studios

Design + Business Anthropologist | Storyteller | Podcaster & Host of This Anthro Life | Musician | Sometimes Zen | Co-founder of Missing Link Studios