The effect of changing quinoa prices in Bolivia: perspectives from consumers and farmers

Quinoa field in the Bolivian altiplano

By Jenneke van Vliet* and Freek Jan Koekoek

In the first decade of the 21st century the millennial Andean food crop quinoa became known to the world as ‘superfood’: a gluten-free pseudo-cereal that contains all the essential amino-acids for human beings and a high content of proteins and minerals. As a consequence, we witnessed an enormous surge in demand for quinoa in Western countries. This had huge impact on quinoa growers and consumers in the Andean countries.

Roughly, two opposing views exist on this impact. On one side it is held that Bolivian farmers have prospered thanks to our Western consumption. On the other side, it is stressed that Western consumers are responsible for a drop in consumption of this high quality food by poor Bolivians. Reality is more intricate and heterogeneous. Whether the quinoa boom was a blessing depends on whom you are asking. The same goes for the effect of last years’ decreasing prices. Without trying to offer an encompassing analysis, let us try to take the perspective of the people influenced by the global quinoa boom in Bolivia by listening to their voices. This focus on individual stories adds to the more macro-economic analysis published in this blog previously.

The City

Doña Naty, an Aymara[1] grandmother, grew up in a family of peons on a landowner’s estate until the 1952 Revolution. The city of La Paz gradually expanded and intruded upon the former estate, so that Doña Naty passed most of her adult life in (peri)urban surroundings. When Doña Naty grew up in the 1940s and 1950s the staple food in the Northern Altiplano (high flat plain) was potatoes and its derived products: chuño, tunta (freeze-dried potatoes that could be stored for a long time). Other important foods were local tuber crops like oca and its freeze-dried variant khaya and papa lisa. Home-grown vegetables, corn and beans were important ingredients, whereas meat was scarce. Wheat, barley and quinoa took a second place in their meals. Quinoa was served in soups, in p’isqi (thick porridge with milk and cheese) or as k’ispiña (a kind of cookies) at least twice a week. Fresh quinoa leaves – which resembles spinach – were also used in soup. Although much less than nowadays, also rice, pasta and bread were part of Naty’s diet. The upper class considered quinoa as poor men’s food or ‘Indian’ food and preferred to eat more ‘European’: with rice, pasta and white bread, accompanying their meat and vegetables.

In the years after her marriage in 1960,  Doña Naty did not cook as much quinoa as her mother. As she became part of city life, with her husband working in a factory, most of their food was no longer homegrown but bought. Although they would still grow their own potatoes on the mountain fields just outside the City which they had received after the Revolution. And they would receive oca from family.

During the Cold War the USA supported Bolivia with large amounts of aid to keep them away from Communism. U.S. food aid imports were changing the national diet from traditional Andean foods to cheap, processed wheat products from the USA. So consumption of quinoa in the Bolivian cities had already dropped, long before the quinoa boom.

Doña Naty’s daughter in law Ana is in her mid-thirties. The younger generation, like Ana, hardly knows how to prepare quinoa. Just-harvested quinoa is tedious to prepare: you have to take out stones and weed seeds, and it needs to be washed several times before it loses its bitter saponin taste. Cleanliness did improve during the last decade, but by then, much knowledge and taste for quinoa was already lost. Ana’s children favour their pasta with fried chicken. Doña Naty was unhappy with the higher prices of quinoa from mid-2008 until mid-2015. She saw that p’isqi (thick porridge) was now offered in the marketplace as a specialty where it used to be a product to look down upon. However, with prices of 40 BS for a kg of quinoa at the end of 2013/beginning of 2014, the product was now too expensive for her. Thanks to lower prices for meat in the same period and her ‘old-fashioned’ taste for vegetable soups, she was unlikely to suffer from nutritional deficiencies. Now that prices have gone down again, she is preparing quinoa once a month and she and Ana choose p’isqi more often when eating out in the marketplace.

Hector is a doctor from the upper middle class, working in the rich Zona Sur. Doctor Hector ate quinoa once in a while in his youth. After 2005 he grew interested in quinoa as an alternative low-calory, highly nutritious food source. He sees a lot of patients suffering from obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease these days. He stimulates them to try a more healthy diet. He is happy with his children’s school breakfast that incorporates ancient Andean small grains. The government also made quinoa part of the food aid to pregnant and breastfeeding women. Besides, since about a decade a new quinoa product became very popular in La Paz: hot quinoa drink with apple. This beverage is sold as breakfast by many street vendors. Nevertheless part of the quinoa was replaced with cheap maizena by the street vendors during the years with high prices.

The total consumption of quinoa in Bolivia seems to have increased slightly during this last decade. Nevertheless, it is still very low with an average of around 1-2 kg/person/year.[2]

The Countryside

Doña Justina is a farmer from the South of Bolivia, who has grown quinoa around the salt flats since she was a young girl.

Doña Justina grew up near Uyuni in the Southern Altiplano in the 1970s. Her family had cultivated quinoa as long as they could remember. They ate quinoa from morning till evening in various preparations. When working on the fields or rearing the family’s llamas she would take along a can of water with a bowl of quinoa or kañawa (a small Andean grain also called ‘baby quinoa’) to make pito drink. Potatoes or alternative staple crops do not grow around the salt flats. So besides rearing llamas and alpacas there was little more to sow for family’s sustenance than quinoa. During the decades to come, this largely remained the case. Life in the countryside was harsh, if only for the cold winters when because of the high altitude the temperature can drop to minus 30. Many people migrated to the cities or the mines to find alternative work although living conditions were often miserable there, too.

After 2006 quinoa was discovered by the world and prices started to move upward, until they peaked in the international year of quinoa in 2013. Doña Justina and the other villagers were happy with the high prices and the recognition for their product. Their cooperative had long sought new ways of trading and exporting their quinoa. This had been a difficult struggle due to the lack of infrastructure and commercial experience and the little knowledge potential purchasers had of the crop. They had finally succeeded!

What was especially gratifying was that as much as 60-70% of the total profits made by quinoa sale came back to the farmers themselves. As rural incomes increased, the villagers managed to buy good cars which decreased transport time and allowed some to offer tours to tourists who visit the salt flats of Uyuni. Satellite tv and mobile phones opened up a larger world to them. Doña Justina’s daughter decided to invest the higher income in a house in the town of Potosi and her children were able to pursue a better education there.

Meanwhile farmers’ own consumption of quinoa decreased. Because of the high prices they often preferred to sell most of their harvest and buy cheaper corn, processed wheat, cookies and coca cola. Some used the extra family income to diversify their diet with fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs and meat other than llama. Depending on each family’s choices, calorie uptake was enhanced, but nutritional quality might have either diminished or improved. If quality diminished this was not caused by farmers ‘having to’ sell their quinoa to make a living, but merely out of curiosity for urban food products that finally became accessible to them, and by their lack of knowledge and awareness of a healthy diet.

For the first time in years villages did no longer shrink but grew. Pablo, Doña Justina’s nephew, was raised in Potosi after his parents migrated there in search of work. He came back to his parents’ village in 2009 to cultivate quinoa. Many cousins returned to the village to reclaim the ‘commons’ as part of their heritance. Since land rights in rural Bolivia are often not clearly defined, land was now taken into production at a fast pace to profit from quinoa’s high prices. This sometimes led to rows and arguments, but villages also flourished with their new inhabitants. Some of the newcomers, like Doña Justina’s nephew Pablo, invested money in big tractors and (bio)insecticides. Farmers were able to contract labourers during the preparation of the fields and especially during harvest time. Other people found work hiring out a tractor, as transporters of quinoa from the fields to the  resellers or in the processing of raw quinoa. These were welcome new forms of employment in the South.

Halfway 2015 prices dropped sharply as international demand did not keep pace with the rise in production in Bolivia and Peru.

Pablo, seeing that his investments no longer rendered, decided to return to the city. His life had improved there as he had been able to build a house and buy a taxi with the money from the quinoa boom.

Two years later, Doña Justina is of course unsatisfied with the lower prices as this decreased her income. But she states it may come with some positive side-effect: time to reflect on the negative sides of the rapid increase in production. “We are suffering from drought. But besides that, we suffer from an increase in sand storms covering the small plants. We feel this is in part an effect of the rapid increase in production, of not respecting the fragility of the pasture and fallow land”. She explains how the newcomers did not own llama’s and villagers sold part of their flocks as they could gain more from quinoa production. Converting pasture and fallow land meant taking away the native vegetation that used to work as wind barrier. Furthermore, it meant using lands that were traditionally not cultivated due to poor soil structure, proneness to inundation or drought. Use of tractors for ploughing without the right knowledge on handling them, further damaged these soils. Combined with shorter rainfall periods, attributed to climate change, this led to an increase in areas of dry, uncovered sand, prone to wind erosion.

Doña Justina: “If we want to go on gaining from quinoa production in our village, we will need new communitarian norms and rules about good agricultural practices. We should also oblige producers who come from outside to invest part of their money in facilities in our village, not only in the towns. Now that we realized this, we will be able to better reap the benefits of a new price surge. In the long run a more cautious approach may lead to more profits.” In fact, there are already a few villages, for example the community of Cotaña, with such new communitarian rules that may lead by example.

Others in the village are more pessimistic: last year they already suffered harvest losses due to drought. This year none of their fields will yield due to severe drought and sand storms. Various families or family members have migrated temporarily to the cities or to Argentine in search of paid labour. Nonetheless, if export prices stay around 2 US dollars, they will come back next year to sow again in hope for early rains.

In this article, the characters of Ana and Doña Naty are real, while Hector, Justina and Pablo are construed out of several informal interviews.

[1] Aymara is the second largest indigenous population in Bolivia.

[2] It is hard to give reliable data on domestic consumption: production figures and official export data are available, but there is also illegal or informal border trade with Peru. Around 20-40 % of total production left Bolivia in this way up until mid-2015. Afterwards the situation might have reversed, with Peruvian quinoa entering the Bolivian market to compensate for bad harvests. Sources: IICA, Ministerio de Desarollo Rural y Tierras

* Ms Jenneke van Vliet hold a Master Degree from Wageningen UR and works as a consultant on sustainable agriculture for CLM in the Netherlands. During a sabbatical year in Bolivia, she contributed to the work of PROINPA towards biological pest control in quinoa. She wrote this article in collaboration with Freek-Jan Koekoek from Mercadero.