In Bolivia, a Quinoa Quandary

Popularity means more money for farmers, but people can't afford it

By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff

Posted Mar 20, 2011 2:14 PM CDT

(Newser) – Quinoa is a food so remarkable it's been praised by NASA scientists—and Americans and Europeans have taken note, gobbling up the protein-heavy Andean plant (generally miscategorized as a grain), which sells for as much as $5 a box. But with quinoa's ascent comes a troubling predicament for the Bolivians who have lived off it for centuries: The growing demand has ballooned farmers' incomes in the poor country, but now many Bolivians can't afford it, forcing them to turn instead to cheap processed foods. At Bolivian supermarkets, a roughly two-pound bag costs about $4.85; buying the same amount of noodles or white rice costs $1.20 and $1, respectively.

The New York Times reports that the shift shines a light on the quandary of rising global food prices: In the last five years, quinoa prices have nearly tripled ... but the country's consumption of it has fallen 34%, and with it, nutrition. One nutritionist says studies show that chronic malnutrition among children is climbing in quinoa-growing areas. But officials say food preferences are partly to blame: "It has to do with food culture, because if you give the kids toasted quinoa flour, they don’t want it; they want white bread. If you give them boiled water, sugar and quinoa flour mixed into a drink, they prefer Coca-Cola."

In this photo taken Oct. 25, 2010, an Aymara woman grinds quinoa grain in Pacoma, Bolivia. Quinoa's rising popularity among First World foodies has been a boon to some of the poor farmers in the semiarid highlands of Bolivia.
In this photo taken Oct. 25, 2010, an Aymara woman grinds quinoa grain in Pacoma, Bolivia. Quinoa's rising popularity among First World foodies has been a boon to some of the poor farmers in the semiarid...   (AP Photo/Juan Karita)
In this photo taken Oct. 25, 2010, a man cleans quinoa grain in Pacoma, Bolivia. Quinoa's rising popularity among First World foodies has been a boon to some of the poor farmers in the semiarid highlands of Bolivia.
In this photo taken Oct. 25, 2010, a man cleans quinoa grain in Pacoma, Bolivia. Quinoa's rising popularity among First World foodies has been a boon to some of the poor farmers in the semiarid highlands...   (AP Photo/Juan Karita)
In this photo taken Oct. 2, 2010, a man stands next to bags filled with quinoa grain in La Paz, Bolivia. Quinoa's rising popularity among First World foodies has been a boon to some of the poor farmers in the semiarid highlands of Bolivia.
In this photo taken Oct. 2, 2010, a man stands next to bags filled with quinoa grain in La Paz, Bolivia. Quinoa's rising popularity among First World foodies has been a boon to some of the poor farmers...   (AP Photo/Juan Karita)
An employee is seen working at a quinoa processing plant in Challapata, 117 km from Oruro, Bolivia on February 15, 2011.
An employee is seen working at a quinoa processing plant in Challapata, 117 km from Oruro, Bolivia on February 15, 2011.   (Getty Images)
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