Bolivia’s Quinoa Quandary

by Ashley Wu:

As millions of Americans sat down to Thanksgiving dinner this year, it’s likely that there was at least a handful of vegans, vegetarians, or gluten-free dieters seated at each table. And it’s also likely that cooks looking to cater to these varying dietary needs put a quinoa dish on the table. But as quinoa becomes accepted into the Western diet, what was once a staple of the Bolivian diet has now become a luxury.

(Creative Commons)

Hailed by the United Nations as a “superfood,” quinoa is loved by health-conscious eaters: it has more protein and fiber and fewer carbohydrates than any other grain. Given that it grows best in cool climates with hot day temperatures and sandy soils, Bolivia has been its main region of growth. Bolivia, once the world’s largest consumer of quinoa, is now the world’s largest exporter of it.

Quinoa’s skyrocketing popularity in international markets has brought drastically increased profits to Bolivian quinoa farmers. In 1980, there was little international demand for quinoa; 100 pounds of it could sell for the equivalent of $7 in the domestic Bolivian market. Thirty years later, however, Western vendors are fighting to pay $100 for the same quantity of the grain. Quinoa farmers have curiously arisen as a segment of Bolivia’s upper middle class, as increased revenues have allowed them to buy bigger houses and even cars.

But quinoa’s availability to Bolivian citizens is dropping at an alarming rate. According to the Bolivian agriculture ministry, national quinoa consumption has dropped by 34% over the past five years. In a country where over 40% of children are malnourished, this is a serious concern: a typical family has been priced out of purchasing nutrient-rich quinoa. In local stores, a 1-kilogram bag of quinoa costs almost five times as much as the same size bag of rice.

Recognizing this problem, Bolivian president Evo Morales authorized a $10 million loan to subsidize quinoa production for domestic consumption earlier this month. However, this program will compete with an existing USAID program that assists Bolivian farmers in producing organic quinoa (which is typically sold only in international markets).

As quinoa gradually slips out of the reach of most Bolivian citizens, we might see echoes of the Mexican-American tortilla-biofuel tensions of 2007.  When trendy commodities come into fashion in Western markets, we rarely consider their impacts on developing nations that rely on these food staples.

Ashley Wu ’15 is in Morse College. She is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger on agriculture and food security issues. Contact her at