By Mathieu / March 21st, 2011
Since the New York Times wrote their article on the rise of popularity of quinoa and its affect on the native population, many customers and retailers have come to us asking us about our reaction and the validity of the claims. While we are thankful for the attention being paid to the region and the local people's struggle (after all, that is inevitably what we try to do), we do feel that they take an angle that does not take into account many important factors, particularly the aspect of fair trade. Based off of the knowledge and experience we've gathered from our 14 years of working closely with Bolivian quinoa farmers, let me take some time to answer some of these questions and claims:
San Francisco, March 21, 2011
First and foremost, we at Alter Eco are pleased that the article in the Sunday edition of the New York Times shines the light on the struggle of quinoa farmers in the Bolivian Altiplano, clearly one of the poorest areas in the world. Alter Eco has been working with two quinoa cooperatives in this region since 1998, pioneering fair trade quinoa, providing fair wages to quinoa farmers whose work in the field is harsh beyond imagination. At Alter Eco, we travel to Bolivia three times a year to visit producers and their organizations in order to conduct internal audits that verify that the price we pay is just and reflects our commitment to fair living wages for farmers, that the growing methods are organic, and that farmer organizations grow as sustainably as can be so that the success of quinoa worldwide directly improves their lives, and may continue to do so for subsequent generations.
For several years, we have studied the impact on local populations of the increase in the price of quinoa, specifically in regard to malnourishment. At the farmer level—the poorest among the poor in Bolivia—what we have found with our cooperative partners is actually the opposite of what the article in the New York Times states. We found that each year, our farmers were able to set aside quantities of quinoa in order to feed themselves and their families, and that they are able to do so precisely because the price of quinoa is now high enough. Higher revenues allow them to diversify their eating regimen, allow them to buy meat and other proteins, and also to keep personal stores of the precious grain. Higher prices, and our fair trade premiums, also help improve their lifestyle in other ways—for example, by helping send their kids to school, improving their villages, roads, etc. Another positive outcome is that populations that once left the desolate quinoa fields are now coming back from the cities, with kids returning to take over their parents’ farms because they now see a decent foreseeable future in cultivating quinoa.
The rising profile and price of quinoa on the world market is a unique opportunity for one of the poorest regions in the world to transform itself. It is critical, however, that fair trade practices be respected among importers, distributors and retailers in developed countries, so that the farmers get a fair share of the higher price of quinoa on shelf. And at Alter Eco, we believe that the price of quinoa today is a fair price, and needs to stay at this level.
As for the rest of Bolivia, in the cities outside of quinoa growing areas, it is true that quinoa has today become quite expensive for local populations to purchase. It is however inaccurate to say that this has radically changed the way Bolivianos consume the grain. The Spanish conquistadors considered quinoa a low-grade food, for the poorest among the population, and quinoa has not been part of the daily diet in Bolivia for decades. And furthermore, to address a separate point from the New York Times article, globalization in general has accelerated the taste for and consumption of western processed foods and diets by local populations in developing countries around the world.
Alter Eco’s corporate mission and raison d’etre is to help support the disenfranchised of the global economy. We stand side by side with the poorest farmers in the world, to help them get a fair price for what they produce in order to improve their lives. What is happening in Bolivia today is a fantastic opportunity to help these communities, as long as fair trade standards are guaranteed. At this point in time, we can safely assure Alter Eco consumers that the purchase of our fair trade quinoa has a very positive impact on the people that currently need it the most.
Co-Founder & CEO
Alter Eco Americas