By Carlos de Mestral
While I was having lunch in Quincy dining hall last week with my friend Helen, we both commented that our quinoa meal tasted delicious. I mentioned how happy it made me that such a nutritional meal actually was so pleasing to the palate. Upon agreeing with me, Helen told me something that really struck me. She told me how while spending a semester studying abroad in Bolivia, she witnessed the changing habits in people’s diets in the country. Simply put, fewer and fewer Bolivians consume quinoa every day.
Bolivians have been harvesting and consuming quinoa for hundreds of years. Today, the decline in quinoa consumption is linked to the increasing global market for quinoa. Developed countries have just recently discovered the unique nutritional value that quinoa affords, which includes a complete set of amino acids, dietary fiber, phosphorous, magnesium and iron. The seeds have become a high commodity in the diet of high-income countries, as exemplified by our own Harvard dining hall menu, which now offers quinoa at least once a week. Quinoa’s success in the international market has come with a high cost, unfortunately, as local prices have skyrocketed in Bolivia, and an increasing number of Bolivians can no longer afford the nutritional seed. Quinoa is being replaced with processed foods such as rice and noodles, which do not compare to quinoa’s nutritional value. This is a serious problem, especially since Bolivia is the poorest country in South America and has struggled for years to feed its population. Although malnutrition rates have declined over the past decades, in recent years there has already been an increase in chronic malnutrition among children in quinoa-growing areas. And prices continue to rise, which will cause even fewer Bolivians to be able to afford quinoa.
Many argue that the export of quinoa to developed countries is promoting the economic growth of quinoa growing areas, and that in the long run this growth has the potential to decrease rates of malnutrition. However, transitioning from a quinoa based diet to one based on highly processed foods might cause more nutritional problems than expected, such as overweight and obesity, which will exacerbate the double burden of disease. Therefore, something ought to be done to stop this decrease in local quinoa consumption.
The government of Bolivia should set a limit to local prices and offer subsidies, as well as tax breaks to farmers who choose to sell domestically. In addition, higher export taxes can be established. Furthermore, the government should promote awareness of the highly nutritional value of quinoa, and the potential risks of a diet based on highly processed foods.