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Over at The Independent (22 March 2011) they're talking about "the "lost crop" of the Incas, a health-giving seed found in the Andes which is increasingly providing the garnish on fashionable Western dinner plates." The crop is quinoa, a high protein seed with a balance of amino acids long used by people needing a gluten-free grain alternative. It's not particularly "long-lost" either, being a staple of health food shops since at least the seventies.
What has changed is the demand. The price of quinoa has trebled over the last couple of years, and the article in The Independent makes the unsupported claim that some of this price increase has trickled down to "agricultural workers" in the growing regions. While market prices may have risen over the last five years, it is doubtful that peasant farmers have seen all that much of an increase in their personal income as the majority of profit is always taken by the purchasing desk.
The article points out that price rises of this nature have meant that the majority of quinoa is being grown for export, with the result that people in the growing regions can no longer afford to buy their own staple food. With quinoa being such an excellent foodstuff, this means that the poorer section of the Bolivian public is now facing malnutrition. The farmers currently expanding quinoa production also face the threat of the crop being grown out of country, thus depriving them of the increased profits they are seeing.
So the quinoa-growing areas of South America face a twin threat; rising food prices pushing people into malnutrition and starvation, and a likely crash in the commodity price. All because of a food fad halfway around the world causing a spike in demand. A demand spike that is most likely temporary in nature as the fad runs its course.
Who will suffer? In the short run, the urban poor, already forced off the land by land consolidation and corporate control (although land reform under Morales has begun, it is by no means complete), they now face a traditional food staple being priced out of their reach. The only replacement will be industrial foods and further control of their food system by non-indigenous actors.
And in the long run, the peasant farmers will suffer. They will ramp up production and commit resources to supply a demand that will most likely evaporate in a couple of years time, leaving them overextended and vulnerable to land consolidation.
Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, has offered a $10 million fund for production for domestic consumption, which is an excellent start towards food self-reliance. This is also an opportunity for Morales to begin work towards a dual-track food production system, with Community Supported Agriculture co-ops providing stable pricing for domestic consumption, while allowing the large landholders to produce for export. Without domestic price supports for internal consumption, Bolivia, like other commodity-producing regions, faces a future of being whipsawed between sudden price spikes for commodities and sudden market crashes driving farmers out of production.