February 02, 2024 •

7 min reading

Quinoa's rise as superfood: Benefits & costs

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The recent popularity of the ancient Andean seed, quinoa, (often referred to as the “golden grain”), brings up many questions about what happens when an ancient food stuff suddenly becomes very attractive to a new market. This article casts a critical perspective on the global appeal and mass production of a once rather obscure South American crop grown in a specific region by the indigenous population.

Nutritional powerhouse: Understanding the quinoa plant's health benefits

Quinoa is an interesting cereal because of its nutritive characteristics and harvesting style. First of all, it has been scientifically proven that quinoa is one of the cereals with the highest protein and amino acid density. Thanks to this, in 2013 the Food and Agriculture Organization launched the “International Year of Quinoa” as a solution to fight against food insecurity.


Growing quinoa: Adapting to harsh climates

Apart from its nutritive characteristics, quinoa is very easy to harvest in regions considered ‘challenging’ from a climatic point of view. Originally the quinoa plant grows in the region of the Altiplano in Latin America located at an altitude of 3600m to 4100m. This region is known for its very extreme weather conditions with dry soil and contrasting temperatures from freezing at night to very hot in the day. Quinoa is therefore able to grow without a lot of water and under extreme conditions.


From local staple to global demand: The expansion of quinoa cultivation

Over the last ten years, the promotion of its nutritive characteristics has helped quinoa come to the attention to a health-conscious consumer niche, drastically increasing its popularity and production. This new acclaim has proven very profitable for the mass production of the quinoa plant but it has also generated many direct challenges for the original local growers and, subsequently, ethical challenges for consumers.

This article addresses some of the dilemmas caused by quinoa’s trending reputation which has led to the explosion of its production and consumption. Essentially, we look at the questions arising from being nominated a solution for addressing food insecurity whilst simultaneously being hyped as a new superfood in mainly non-traditional quinoa countries, alongside the ecological and economic impacts caused by its global mass production.

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From food solution to superfood

The quinoa plant stands out as a nutrient-dense crop: rich in protein, essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals. Its comprehensive nutritional profile makes it an ideal food for combating malnutrition, especially in regions where access to diverse nutrients is limited. One of quinoa's remarkable qualities is its adaptability to difficult agroecological conditions, e.g., arid terrains, variable temperatures and limited water resources. Its ability to thrive in such conditions offers hope for cultivation in regions with agricultural challenges due to climate change or limited arable land.

Simultaneously, the discovery of quinoa's nutritional benefits has led to its growth in the health-conscious markets of Global North markets (North America, Australia and Europe). Marketed as a ‘superfood,’ quinoa has gained traction due to its high protein content, gluten-free and easy-to-use nature, attracting health-conscious consumers on the hunt for alternative nutrient-rich food options. As health experts promoted its benefits, quinoa became synonymous with wellness and healthy eating.

Quinoa's journey from a traditional staple in the Andean highlands to a global superfood sensation is a testament to its nutritional wealth, robust nature and cultural significance. Its new-age reputation has not only elevated its status as a sought-after health food but also brought a new economic dimension to the communities that had been growing quinoa for centuries. Initially grown for local consumption, quinoa's popularity in the global market brought newfound economic opportunities to a number of Andean farming communities.

The increased demand seemingly led to improved incomes for quinoa plant cultivators, elevating their standard of living and offering a pathway out of poverty. However, this so-called ‘improvement’ has come at a high price in terms of mass production cultivation methods, fluctuating markets and big land takeovers.


Ethical and environmental impacts of quinoa's popularity

As the global demand for quinoa surged, particularly in affluent Global North markets, a consequential shift towards mass production took place in the Andean region. This shift came with big trade-offs, accentuating the environmental and cultural costs associated with industrial-scale quinoa growing, and especially, the implementation of monoculture practices. Widespread land clearing and conversion for quinoa cultivation has led to soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, and decreased resilience of the local flora and fauna, posing long-term threats to the region's ecological stability and the fabric of local communities.

Quinoa's mass cultivation in arid regions, where water is already scarce, has exacerbated water issues. Large-scale irrigation for quinoa fields has strained local water sources, leading to depletion of aquifers, reduced stream flow, and disruption of water availability for both agricultural needs and inhabitants of the region.

As large-scale commercial enterprises dominate the market, smaller farmers have faced challenges competing in the global market. The economic pressures stemming from the shift to mass production has driven many small, traditional quinoa farmers out of work. This departure from ancestral farming wisdom not only threatens the cultural heritage of growing quinoa but also compromises the intergenerational transmission of agricultural knowledge and practices.

Health-conscious consumers who embrace quinoa as a fashionable, wholesome addition to their diets are often unaware of the intricacies behind its production. This disconnect casts a shadow on the complex socio-economic and environmental consequences associated with quinoa's mass appeal.

“The increasing demand for quinoa coming from the Global North and its future prospects concerning the posed environmental impacts, raises a series of challenges for the cultivating countries in the Global South, especially for the three major producers, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. The calls to action regarding the deteriorating biodiversity mostly touch upon two main aspects, namely: the utilization of the available genetic diversity of the crop and its relation to market pressure and the effects of changing land use on biodiversity.”

The quinoa dilemma: Local vs global production

Let’s take Switzerland as an example of a non-traditional quinoa growing country where cultivation has been active for the past 10 years – much encouraged by the FAO's International Year of Quinoa political program in 2013 that encouraged quinoa growth internationally. Since the quinoa boom, consumer demand has had implications for both local Swiss producers and distant South American communities dependent on the crop’s production. For the Swiss producer, quinoa cultivation has meant successfully adopting new techniques to grow a trending superfood and promote local produce – both things in high demand. For Swiss consumers, buying locally produced quinoa grown in their own country aligns with ethical principles based on support for local economies, reduced carbon footprints and shorter supply chains.

However, this local positioning often bypasses the fact that quinoa grown in a country like Switzerland might have to rely on pesticides, international seed breeding, additional water resources and production costs that are not needed in the Altiplano. Supporting Andean producers who rely on quinoa exports carries an equal ethical weight in terms of providing economic stability for growers heavily dependent on its cultivation to sustain livelihoods, bolster economies and empower communities to uphold their cultural heritage and agricultural practices.

Encouraging informed choices in quinoa consumption means drawing attention to transparency in sourcing, supporting fair compensation for producers and striving for a balance between local and global support that respects the well-being of all stakeholders involved. The dilemma remains: Is it better to consume fair trade quinoa produced in the Altiplano or organically produced quinoa from a non-traditional country like Switzerland?

“By omitting the global structures making the adaptation of quinoa possible, making the latter a purely local affair, simplifying the story in this way by idealizing local production and demonizing imported production risks contributing to reinforcing inequalities both at the global and local levels”


Florence Bétrisey, Institute of Geography and Sustainability Faculty of Geosciences and Environment, University of Lausanne

Facing the ethics of quinoa

When it comes to the ethics of consuming quinoa grown in non-traditional countries like Switzerland versus fair trade quinoa from South America, several aspects should be taken into account:

  • Environmental impact: Quinoa grown in non-traditional countries may require more resources like water and possibly the use of pesticides due to the different climate and agricultural conditions.
  • Fair trade: Quinoa from the Altiplano often carries fair trade certifications, ensuring that farmers receive fair wages and work in good conditions.
  • Food miles: Transporting quinoa to European countries contributes comes with a heavy carbon footprint due to long transportation distances. Locally grown quinoa may have a lower carbon footprint.
  • Agriculture practices: Assessing the overall sustainability of the production methods used in both locations is crucial. Some Swiss producers might adopt sustainable farming practices, while others may prioritize higher yields with potential environmental costs.
  • Consumer preferences: Some consumers prioritize supporting local agriculture and low carbon footprint, while others prioritize fair trade and ethical sourcing. Raising consumer awareness on the production of so-called superfoods like avocadoes, acai berries and quinoa is essential.


Balancing quinoa consumption with sustainable practices

This article aims to examine the impacts of the increasingly popular quinoa seed, considered both a superfood and a source of food security. Initially, the impact was positive for the original Andean farming population: the rise in quinoa’s popularity led to a significant increase in income and a general improvement in quality of life. However, as consumption continued to rise, the surge in demand inevitably led to a shift towards mass production that caused a rift in terms of local communities, land distribution and ancestral growing traditions.

In addition to severely impacting the land’s ecosystem, this shift to quinoa monoculture has driven many local families and businesses into bankruptcy as a result of poor harvests, climate change and fluctuating markets. The situation, announced at the beginning of 2013 as “flourishing”, quickly turned sour for the local Altiplano farmers and sweet for quinoa consumers in western countries far removed from the original crop growing regions.

This raises the question of whether more urban, westernized communities should continue to consume locally grown quinoa in countries like Switzerland on a large scale, or whether we should consume less – but better sourced - quinoa from the Andean region grown by farmers who stand to benefit greatly from the income generated by exporting this seed, and who, moreover, have mastered its cultivation over centuries.


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