How to Buy Quinoa That Supports Andean Farmers
Most brands aren't transparent so consumers need to do their own research.
Around 2005, quinoa went global and the entire market around it changed. It started being marketed as a health food at a m moment when being kosher, gluten-free and a complete plant protein were highly sought after attributes. Supply could not keep up with demand, so, naturally, prices jumped and much more quinoa was planted, not always in the optimum conditions. Recent years have been a quagmire of misleading information that gets swallowed by social media algorithims and spit out and now most have little clue if and how they should purchase quinoa (“Are you a terrible person for eating quinoa?,” “Your Love Of Quinoa Is Good News For Andean Farmers,” “The food fad that’s starving Bolivia”).
There are a few things happening here that need explained. While it is true that people in urban areas of Peru and Bolivia that had become accustomed to paying too little for quinoa need to pay more, generally, high prices for quinoa are a good thing if the money goes to the people that are growing it by traditional means. That’s a big if and where much of the problem lays.
Why aren’t Andean farmers benefitting from increased Quinoa sales?
There are two primary issues occuring that prevent Andean farmers from getting fair prices for their quinoa crop:
“The way that we started to learn about how middleman work is they go to these remote communities that are between five to 10 hours from any airport, so it is difficult to get to them. And then from there, they go in and get a price. So this is the price the market is at today. If you want to sell it to me then come to the local market on Thursday afternoons. So the community already knows that every Thursday afternoon, there's going to be a market opening and they are going to bring their crop from their homes, which could be another few hours from where the town is. And they have to find a some sort of transportation, either rent a truck, some animals to help them with the load, little motorcycles or even just carry it themselves by walking to get to the town.
The local brokers say this week, this is the price. [The farmers] have no say in that. They have no say if it’s high or low. It's all dictated by this broker that comes in. They have no idea where he comes from or where the product is going. So, from there, this broker will take it to the town where the the airport is so there's more of a logistical point. So for Taraco, which is near Juliaca, it's about an hour and a half. He takes it to Juliaca and then from Juliaca there's going to be another broker. A little bit bigger fish, and he's going to take the product from these smaller, more regionalized brokers and he's going to have enough volume for a truckload, which usually is anywhere from 10 to 20 tons, so anywhere from 22,000 to 44,000 pounds.
He puts it in a truck and then sends it to the capital, Lima. And in a country like Peru, a lot of logistics are concentrated in the capital of Lima. So every product is going to flow through that. And then in Lima, you're going to have the big town or the big city guy that is going to take all this product and he gets it from not only Puno, but he might get it from Cusco might get it from Ayacucho. He might get it from Andahuaylas. He’ll mix all these grains and start sell that product to a processor. The processor will sell it to an exporter. And that exporter will sell it to the market, the international market.”
The second issue is the surge of quinoa not being grown in the high Andes and altiplano of Peru and Bolivia. While there is quinoa now being grown in China, Colorado’s San Luis Valley and the Netherlands, not to mention Ecuador, Chile and Argentina, an estimated 80 percent of all quinoa is still being grown in Peru and Bolivia, though not all of it is equal. While farming cooperatives in the Andes have made significant investments in equipment and planted more seeds with their increased earnings, they are being undercut by industrial quinoa being grown at low altitudes, mostly in Peru. Peru produced around 114,500 tons of quinoa in 2014, up from about 44,000 tons a decade before, turning it into the world’s largest producer. While yields are often higher along the Peruvian coast than in the Andes, insects and diseases are also more frequent, requiring heavy use of agrochemicals.
The flooded marketplace of cheap, lower-quality quinoa and the obliviousness of consumers has forced some Andean growers to make adjustments to compete. Some are using more grazing land for planting quinoa, moving away from environmentally friendly methods of production. Some are opting to grow fewer varieties with more commercial potential rather than utilize the full range of quinoa’s genetic diversity.
Why is it so hard to buy quinoa from the right place?
We know we should be buying from farmers growing quinoa by traditional means in Peru and Bolivia, plus buying it with as few middlemen as possible. So it sounds we just need to know where the quinoa is coming from. Simple, right? Sadly, very few of the brands want you to know exactly where their quinoa is coming from.
The biggest brands peddling quinoa in U.S. supermarkets include Bob’s Red Mill and Ancient Harvest, along with in-house brands for Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s. Many of the brands plaster their websites and advertisements with labels related to quinoa’s healthy properties, like “gluten-free,” “non-GMO” and “plant-based,” though there is little about fair-trade sourcing or the cooperatives they purchase from. While some smaller brands are very clear in their sourcing, most brands simply say their quinoa is from Peru or Bolivia, which means it could either be highland quinoa grown organically by Andean farmers (thoufgh possibly through a series of middlemen) or industrial quinoa with lesser nutritional benefits that has been sprayed with pesticides at lower altitudes. If you call them and try to find out, they won’t tell you. I’ve tried.
What should I look for when purchasing quinoa?
Most of the quinoa that grows by traditional methods in the high Andes is grown by small farmers and it’s rarely the cheapest quinoa on the market. The farmers that benefit the most either work directly with a brand or with a cooperative. These small groups of quinoa farmers from various microregions pool their resources together to have enough a more viable product. The most transparent brands tell you clearly which farmers or cooperatives they work with.
Determining which quinoa from Peru benefits small farmers can be difficult as so much is being grown on the coast now and many product labels are vague about sourcing. The traditional growing areas include the Andean provinces of Ancash, Cusco, Apurimac, Huanuco, Huancavelica, Ayacucho, and Puno, so keep an eye out for those regions. Some brands like SIMPLi, which are regenerative organic certified, work directly with farmers and let you know their names.
In Bolivia, the traditional growing region is the southern altiplano. AlterEco, works with APAQUICTL and ASOPROAGPI. With quinoa from Bolivia, a good bet is to look for the words Quinua Real, or Royal Quinoa, on the packaging, such as with Greenfit, Viva Naturals and Food to Live. This is one of the most sought-after forms of quinoa, grown between the salt lakes of Uyuni and Coipasa on Bolivia’s southern altiplano. The name was established in 2003 by ANAPQUI, an association of small producers, and in 2016 a larger group of cooperatives joined the effort. Rather than just a single varietal, quinoa real is a collection of seven to 10 varieties of quinoa seeds, each with different attributes, planted together. After 18 years of work, these farmers recently achieved a designation of origin for the southern altiplano, which is managed by a regulatory council.
If brands aren’t being transparent, don’t buy from them and then write them and let them know. Consumers have the power to force them to change how they source their product.
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