Quinoa Highlights Consequences Of Global Commodity Trade

Michael Teague  |

Readers can be excused in advance for not having known that, as per the United Nations’ Food & Agriculture Organization, 2013 had been designated the International Year of Quinoa.

The commemoration is no mere token, given the increasing popularity of the grain-esque crop over the past decade. Quinoa had long been familiar to the health conscious, vegetarians, and vegans as the ideal protein supplement, but its appeal has broadened significantly since the turn of the millenium.

The rise in Quinoa consumption in Western/Northern portions of the globe over the last decade or so has been substantial, and is concomitant with the rise of organic and "all-natural" groceries and grocery store chains such as Whole Foods Market (WFM) , where certain varieties can be purchased in bulk for a around $3.99 per pound.

Often used as a substitute for rice and other grains, quinoa is actually a species of goosefoot, and as such finds itself in the same family as spinach and beetroots. Prior to its introduction to the urbane and health-conscious, however, it had for several thousand years been a staple food in its region of origin, the Andean highlands that straddle the South American nations of Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. The Incas considered it a “food of the gods”.

And there are good reasons for this. Quinoa packs far more nutrition than the grains it is often used to replace: it has a high protein content of 14 to 18 percent, contains high levels of vitamins E, B2, calcium, and magnesium, and is one of the only foods to carry all 10 vital amino acids.

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Greater demand for quinoa has also had a significant impact on the economies of the world's two biggest producers, Peru and Bolivia, where the dry and cool climate of the Andean highlands provide the best growing environment for crops. Bolivia accounts for nearly half of the global quinoa supply, and in 2012 made $85 million off of the 23,000 tons it exported, while Peru raked in $35 million tons from its own exports. Some  in Bolivia predict that the quinoa economy could eclipse that of the country's traditional resource exports. and the government has made a priority of industrializing production.

More demand has also meant higher prices, which have tripled since 2006, and this has had a profound impact on farmers located in Bolivia's historically most impoverished regions. Growers and the industry that depends on their harvests have benefitteded greatly from the recent trend both in terms of profits, which have brought development and investment to long-struggling farmers.

For all the good it has done, the expansion of the quinoa economy has also had untintended consequences. In Lima, for example, quinoa has become more expensive that chicken while in La Paz, it is some four times more expensive than rice. This has lead to concern that a long-standing staple of gastronomical culture is becoming increasngly inacessibe, as both countries have seen a rise in consumption of lower-quaity/fast foods. Quinoa's heightened-standing as a commodity has even started a trend of de-urbanization, as job-seekers have been leaving cities in favor of the more promising employment opportunities available in the fields.

The Bolivian government's plan of consolidating and industrializing farming in order to meet growing demand could also have environmental consequences, Industrial agriculture depletes soil quickly, requires more chemicals, and can disrupt generations-od argicutural communities. Environmentalist principles are enrshined in the Bolivian constitution, and concern for the well-being of the earth has been a theme throughout the presidency of Evo Morales.

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