05 April 2011

Is quinoa commercialization hurting Bolivian consumers?

Lately quinoa (pictured above) has been in the news quite a lot.  In late January the Associate Press put out an article (Demand for Quinoa a Boon for Bolivian Farmers) which laid out the case for quinoa commercialization as a 'boon to Bolivian; farmers' (which I wrote about here: Quinoa Article in Wash Post) then just a few weeks ago the New York Times published an article (rebuttal?) stating that the commercialization of quinoa and its rising price was putting quinoa consumption out of reach for the average Bolivian consumer (Quinoa's Global Success Creates Quandry at Home).  Besides demonstrating that there is a certain level of interest from consumers in the United States for how their food is produced and what the impacts of that consumption are, these articles indicate that there is a certain ambiguity to the impact of commercialization of quinoa in Bolivia. This is the subject of this post, and was the general content of my presentation in Seattle, minus the anthropology jargon.

As many of you know, my research in Bolivia endeavored to look into the responses of local actors to globalization and commercialization.  The results of this research were two major conclusions: 1) actors respond to and are impacted differently by global processes and 2) the market economy is a manageable entity rather than a deterministic force (the market as deterministic force is one point on which modernists, economists, and Marxists seem to agree).

So considering these conclusions and some experience in the markets of Bolivia, I have found that while cooperatives in Bolivia do indeed export a huge portion of their stock (90%?), middlemen in the country actually buy and sell quinoa domestically, making quinoa available throughout the country at a (relatively) cheap price.  Here is where the ambiguity comes in. One can argue that quinoa production in Bolivia can satisfy two needs - domestic food sovereignty and economic development.  Cooperatives satisfy the latter in their sale of high-priced quinoa and high returns to farmers and intermediaries satisfy the former in their work to sell quinoa across the country.  So, much to the disappointment of many economists, one cannot say that one model is the best.  Each is necessary to satisfy the needs of Bolivia.

My point here is that both papers tend to overstate their case and both papers have flattened out the difference (and ambiguities) that exist in Bolivia.  I think the New York Times article is particularly unaware of the reality of quinoa.  It neglects the fact that quinoa trade in Bolivia is much more robust than it was in the 1970s when it was consumed primarily by the farmers who produced it. And despite the assumptions of some researchers, many Bolivian farmers do keep a portion of their production for their own consumption and the sale of quinoa can give them access to fruits, vegetables, and other locally unavailable foods. Urban consumers have access to quinoa in supermarkets, health food stores, and open-air markets at a significantly lower price than quinoa on United States shelves.

Of course, this also isn't to say that middlemen are Bolivian Robin Hoods. Their are certainly cases in which middlemen cheat producers and probably more cases in which they cheat consumers.  It's not my intention to present middlemen as saints, but to say that despite their warts and wrinkles, they do serve a few choice purposes for producers and consumers.

Don't get me wrong, I think the attention paid to quinoa is great and I think the fact that writers are finding it necessary to demonstrate the impact of consumption on other peoples is a hopeful prospect. I wouldn't be an anthropologist though, if I didn't critique everything I read.

Middlemen selling at market in Challapata

Middlewoman buying quinoa and selling everything in Colcha "K"


  1. Hi Andrew ,

    I am currently working on a quinoa memo for an org in Bolivia and would love to have your feedback on my ideas, since you seem to have a good handle on the current quinoa situation. Your post does an excellent job of showing a balanced perspectives on prices and production. I would of course quote and/or cite your perspective in my article.

    Please feel free to contact me at emma.lillian.banks@gmail.com

    Mil gracias y saludos de Cochabamba!

  2. Hi Emma,

    Thanks for your interest, I'd be happy to help out. I'll e-mail you after work today.

    Saludos de Boston!

  3. Hey Andrew,
    I am a student at Princeton University and am writing a 20-30 page paper on quinoa for a class I am in. I am on a rather tight deadline and I just came across your blog but would love to talk to you on the phone if you get a chance. Is there any way you could email me your telephone number or I could email you mine so that we could talk briefly?