South American ‘superfood’ increasingly only for the wealthy

SBS World News Radio, April 2014

Growing international demand has led to the price of quinoa, a staple in Peru, doubling in the last year.

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TRANSCRIPT: Quinoa was once a staple food for ancient civilizations in the Andes and other parts of South America.

Today the highly nutritious plant is a popular choice around the world, including in Australia.

However, growing international demand has led to the price of quinoa in Peru nearly doubling in the last year.

The Peruvian government has been encouraging more local farmers to grow quinoa to meet the demand.

But poorer Peruvians living in urban areas are increasingly unable to afford to eat what was once in cheap, plentiful supply.

Aid organisations say this is leading to malnutrition and other problems in the local population.

Brianna Piazza with this report…

In Acosvinchos in central Peru, farmers are busy planting quinoa, which they will harvest later this year.

Many of the town’s farmers are planting quinoa for the first time, hoping to profit from its heightened popularity overseas.

Acosvinchos farmer Victor Quispe has traditionally grown vegetables such as peas, corn and beans.

But like many of his neighbours, this year he has included quinoa for the first time.

Victor Quispe says quinoa is expensive to cultivate, and is highly susceptible to high rainfall and frosts.

But he believes it’s a risk worth taking.

“Well, we work for our children, also to survive, because we don’t have anything else to hold on to. We don’t have another job. That’s why we are attached to this job, which is the crops and we use it to provide food and education for our children.”

In Western countries, health conscious consumers are turning to quinoa as a so-called “superfood”.

It’s rich in protein, high in fibre, and contains many minerals and vitamins.

And as quinoa has gained in popularity overseas, it has also risen rapidly in price in South America.

It now sells in Peru’s capital Lima for around seven dollars per kilo, compared to around three dollars in early 2013.

In Australia, shoppers can pay more than 20-dollars per kilo for pre-packaged quinoa in supermarkets.

World Vision’s permaculture project manager in Cusco, Ronald Quispe, says selling quinoa generates greater income for many Peruvian farmers, providing them with a way out of poverty.

But high prices also mean other Peruvians aren’t able to afford quinoa.

Mr Quispe says locals should have access to cheap quinoa, as it is an important ingredient in potentially reducing malnutrition.

“We are forecasting a risk in terms of commercialisation and price, the access of families that have the possibility to buy it and the risk of families with no possibilities of buying it, to stop consuming this high and rich vegetable protein. Quinoa has so many nutrients and would help improve malnutrition in kids in the regions where World Vision is working.”

Another Acosvinchos farmer, Wenscelao Quispe says there should be more government support for quinoa crops.

He is currently using traditional farming methods, turning the soil, planting and harvesting by hand.

But he says if the government were able to provide tractors and other equipment, he and others could increase their yields.

“This year, almost the majority of farmers here decided to cultivate quinoa, but it has not been supported by the government in matters of promotion. We hope the government will support us.”

Lima is home to more than 8.5 million people, with many living in impoverished neighbourhoods.

Lima resident and student Ruth Delacruz says it’s easy to find quinoa dishes in restaurants.

But she says families living in the city’s poorer suburbs are strongly feeling the effects of quinoa’s rising price.

“In Peru the normal families have the chance for buying quinoa, but the poor people, no. The poor families don’t have the possibility for buying quinoa. Usually they prefer to eat rice, it’s cheaper than buying quinoa.”

Lima resident Flora Mamane believes it’s important for her family to eat quinoa regularly.

She says the family still manages to eat quinoa five times a week, but she must cut other foods to ensure her grocery bills don’t increase too much.

“I try to buy less rice and more quinoa, to consume more quinoa. I try to eat less red meat and more quinoa so there is a balance. I´d say that it does not affect my economy much, because the meat costs me more than the quinoa. I know that the quinoa is very nutritious. That´s why.”

Despite the problems that higher prices are causing within Peru, farmers like Rocio Roque Pino hope Westerners continue to consume even more quinoa.

She says quinoa provides one of the few opportunities for her to earn enough money to send her children to a good school.

“I hope the price of quinoa continues to rise because when the price is too low it’s not a business for us because we don’t make a lot of profit. It costs money to grow quinoa and if we put all our time into producing it when the price is low it’s not worth it.”

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Brianna Piazza

Journalist and travel writer.

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