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You can finally stop feeling guilty for eating quinoa

At long last, the agony can subside.
(Deb Lindsey/The Washington Post/Getty Images)

In January 2013, agricultural economist Marc Bellemare was browsing the internet when he noticed a raging debate about (of all things) quinoa. Specifically, whether people in rich countries should feel guilty about eating it.

This was the height of the "superfood" craze, recall, and Americans and Europeans were scarfing down quinoa — a high-protein alternative to rice with a rich, nutty flavor — by the bucketful. Global quinoa prices had nearly tripled between 2006 and 2013.

Some commenters feared the West's quinoa binge would spell disaster for the developing world. "Poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom [quinoa] was once a nourishing staple food, can no longer afford to eat it," wrote Joanna Blythman in a scolding Guardian post. That piece, in turn, drew fire from other pundits who countered that the price increase would be a boon to farmers who grew the crop.

The quinoa debate was lively, but it all struck Bellemare as a bit superficial. "None of these arguments had good data behind them," he told me. So he did what economists do: he started hunting for data.

Three years later, Bellemare has published his investigation in a paper he wrote with Johanna Fajardo-Gonzalez and Seth Gitter. And the results are surprising. Not only has the quinoa craze benefited farmers in Peru — it's even benefited quinoa consumers in the region who don't actually plant the crop.

How the quinoa craze benefited Peru

An woman and her children visiting a producers market in Lima, Peru, on June 24, 2013, walk next to a display with variety of protein rich red quinoa. (CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images)

It's not easy to gather income data for households in Peru (particularly since many poorer, rural families bring in income from disparate sources). But Peru's government does conduct a detailed survey of household consumption expenditures each year.

Economists tend to think these expenditures are a pretty good proxy for welfare. If expenditures go up in one month, that might be because of a price shock. But if expenditures are going up in a sustained way year after year, that suggests people are actually getting wealthier.

Bellemare and his co-authors could then use these surveys to split people in Peru into three different groups, shown on the chart below: 1) those who produced quinoa (in orange), 2) those who consumed quinoa in their diets but didn't grow it (in gray), and 3) people who neither ate nor grew quinoa (in blue). They could then see how their expenditures shifted over time:

(Chart courtesy of Marc Bellemare)

It's not surprising that quinoa farmers were much better off when prices spiked between 2006 and 2013. What's surprising is that Peru's quinoa eaters ended up better off, too — in fact, they seemed to see a bigger welfare boost than non-consumers. The authors used regression analyses to estimate that a 10 percent increase in quinoa prices led to a 0.7 percent increase in average welfare for these households. (They controlled for economic growth and a variety of other things going on in Peru at the same time.)

"I was not expecting to find that," Bellemare says. He speculates that the boost in incomes to quinoa farmers may have trickled down to their quinoa-eating neighbors in the region through increased spending and economic activity. The effect is small but statistically significant.

To be sure, there are lots of things this study can't tell us. It doesn't tell us how quinoa eaters in Peru might have adapted to higher prices — possibly they switched to eating more rice and potatoes instead. It also doesn't tell us what went on in Bolivia, another key quinoa-producing region (though one might expect the effects would be similar). But it does suggest that, on average, the Western quinoa craze has broadly benefited Peruvian households — even non-farmers.

"I think the overall lesson here," Bellemare says, "is that before we make any claims about the effect of changes in our eating patterns, we really need to look at the data rather than speculate in ways that could be counterproductive. Because if we had actually boycotted quinoa, as some people were suggesting at the time, that wouldn't have benefited these households — at least according to our study."

In any case, quinoa prices have recently fallen back to pre-2010 levels recently, as markets have adapted and production in Peru and Bolivia has increased in response to rising demand. (In the past, Peruvian quinoa mostly came from the traditional growing regions of Puno and Cuzco; nowadays, agribusinesses are using modern farming to grow quinoa in places like Arequipa as well.)

"I’ll be curious to see if anyone studies what a price decrease does to people," Bellemare adds. "There may be some people who are worse off. But again, before we make bold statements, we should look beyond anecdotes."

(Shutterstock)

By the way, there is also the slightly different question of whether the quinoa craze might be affecting crop diversity. Technically, there are more than 3,000 varieties of quinoa grown in South America, with different villages relying on slightly different strains. But Western appetites have raised demand for just a few strains — particularly the red and white varieties most commonly found in grocery stores.

The Peruvian government has shown some interest in addressing this issue. And in separate research coordinated with (and funded by) the International Trade Centre, Bellemare and Gitter have found that Peru's farmers would be willing to plant other varieties in exchange for small payments. So, in theory, that's not an insurmountable problem, but it's one worth keeping an eye on.

Further reading

  • Bellemare discusses the paper here.
  • Back in 2014, Lisa Hamilton wrote a fascinating piece for Harper's about the debate over who owns the right to grow quinoa.
  • And in 2013, Lydia DePillis wrote a great piece about how producers were struggling to keep up with rising quinoa demand.

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