Quinoa and the price of coffee—paying at my table


On winter mornings I eat hot cereal. There is oatmeal, Wheatena, Farina, three-grain and seven-grain mixes, cream of rice, cream of brown rice, and buckwheat. And quinoa.

I also eat quinoa at night and in warmer weather, making into a salad.

Most people I know draw a blank when it comes to quinoa. If they know it at all, they see it as a quirky, health food dish not fit for serious eaters. But it does seem to be catching on. I’ve met several chefs recently who tout the virtues of quinoa. The demand for quinoa is soaring.

And there’s the problem. Too much of a good thing can be bad, in this instance not for the consumer but for the producer.

I am reminded of my work with farmers in Kenya four decades ago. Kenyan coffee already had a reputation for quality and its price on the international market was strong. The other cash crop in the area was pyrethrum, a flower in the chrysanthemum family processed into an insecticide. This crop was even more lucrative than coffee. Both coffee and pyrethrum growers were eager to increase their income and willingly planted more of the cash crops.

In fact, so much coffee and pyrethrum was planted that crowded out corn, potatoes, millet, bananas and other foodstuffs. The irony of financial success was that malnutrition was on the rise. So while I worked with coffee and pyrethrum cooperatives, I also toured the district with the Agricultural Officer encouraging farmers to make sure they always set aside enough acreage to plant food to feed themselves.

A similar phenomenon is unfolding in Bolivia, the major producer of quinoa. Their crop has become so successful that less food is grown locally. The price of quinoa is now so high domestically that many people in Bolivia can no longer afford what NASA had once declared a life-sustaining nutrient for its astronauts. The NY Times reports that over the past five years, quinoa consumption in Bolivia has declined by 34 percent, while export of the crop has tripled.

Coffee and pyrethrum are grown for the export market—I love Kenyan coffee and am glad that pyrethrum, which is non-toxic to humans, is in my household insecticide. The benefit to Kenyans is in the form of money, which is then used to buy food that otherwise would have been grown in the fields turned over to the cash crops.

Quinoa sustained the indigenous Andean population very well over thousands of years. Now that others abroad have discovered that it is tasty and nutritious, malnutrition is growing in children in quinoa producing regions as parents are turning to processed foods instead.

The Bolivian government is aware of the problem and the plant is being used as part of the food supplied to poor pregnant and nursing women. There are plans to introduce it into school breakfasts.

It seems right to me that those of us in developed countries have an obligation to farmers who have exchanged their health for our expanding taste for healthy and exotic foods. Part of the price we pay for our quinoa (or coffee or pyrethrum or chocolate or tea) should revert to the people who grow it for our pleasure. This means higher prices for the products we consume so farmers are able to raise healthy families. That’s what it means to be fair and just.

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One thought on “Quinoa and the price of coffee—paying at my table

  1. Thank you for sharing this information, which I was not aware of! As a strict vegetarian, I often find that there is a community of somewhat self-righteous “health nuts” who think that because they eat soy, quinoa, tempeh etc and abstain from meat that they are “of course!” saving the world. But the history of Monsanto and other companies shows that this is not the case, and we have to be vigilant about our food sources. Ethical eating/healthy isn’t only about leaving out the meat!

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