International Women's Issues

International Women’s Issues: Quinoa, Malnutrition, and Women in Bolivia

Quinoa is pretty much the ultimate food, right? It’s vegan, gluten-free, soy-free, fat-free, and a complete protein (a rarity amongst non-meats!) In the past few years, it’s become incredibly popular among Westerners ““ my local Whole Foods is positively bursting with the stuff. 

There is kind of a problem, though. Most of the quinoa consumed by the developed world is grown in Bolivia, where they’ve been eating the stuff for centuries. And now, because global demand has increased so sharply and so quickly, it’s now too expensive for many Bolivians to afford.

The New York Times and NPR both covered this issue in the beginning of the year, explaining that over the past five years, the global price of quinoa has tripled, while Bolivian consumption has fallen by 34 percent. In the regions of Bolivia where quinoa is grown, malnutrition amongst children under five is increasing, contrary to the national trend. It is far less expensive to buy wheat-flour noodles or rice, which don’t pack the nutritional punch of quinoa.

And for many people in Bolivia, a nutritional punch is sorely needed. To provide some background: As one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, two-thirds of Bolivian people currently live below the poverty line. Forty percent of the overall population, increasing to nearly 60 percent in rural areas, simply don’t have access to the minimum recommended caloric intake (this includes both purchased food and home-grown food.) In the most severe cases, 72 percent of some populations can’t afford to feed themselves. Bolivia’s significant indigenous population, a large part of the rural population, is especially struggling with malnutrition.

Women, as we know, are the majority of the world’s farmers, and women do a significant portion of farming in Bolivia. The prevalence of women farming in Bolivia is on the rise, thanks in part to the 2009 constitution, which clarified women’s rights on land inheritance, something that is still a sticking point in parts of Bolivian society. Women are inheriting, owning, and working land at an unprecedented rate. In addition to this, women have always been responsible for feeding their families, and when food supplies are scarce, it is women who are frequently the first to go without food. UNICEF states, “Women in Bolivia do not live in conditions of equity with regard to men.” It is unfortunately safe to say that, in unequal societies, if men are going hungry, women are even hungrier.

Happily, there is a huge push, both domestically and internationally, to reduce malnutrition in Bolivia, and much of this effort is directed towards helping women. The Bolivian government, under President Evo Morales – the first indigenous leader of Bolivia, and a reformer – has taken significant steps towards reducing malnutrition, especially in pregnant women and nursing mothers. In conjunction with several UN agencies, in 2007 Bolivia created the Zero Malnutrition National Program, a multifaceted commission with the goal of eliminating malnutrition in children under five. This commission does a great many things, but the one I’m going to focus on is the Madres Vigilantes campaign. Madres Vigiliantes, or mindful mothers, is a program in which women are trained about child development and growth, nutrition, and eating and cooking habits. These women then go back to their communities and teach what they’ve learned to their neighbors, friends, and relatives. In the Bentanzos municipality alone, 1500 women have already been trained to be Madres Vigilantes.

There is also a recent push for microfinance initiatives in Bolivia. Microfinance initiatives involve lending institutions giving loans to low-income groups for the purpose of entrepreneurial activities and income generation. Loaning to groups ensures a higher likelihood of the loan being repaid – as does loaning to women. (Microfinance was first pioneered, with great success, in Bangladesh in the 1980s. I am sure I will cover it in more depth here at some point, as it does have its downsides as well.) In a nutshell, though, microfinance loans to women make it possible for women to generate their own income. Organizations ranging in size from USAID to local Bolivian banks have begun microfinance programs, making it possible for women to make more money – and therefore buy more food.

I suppose I should make clear – I’m not saying don’t buy quinoa. If you can, do find out where exactly your quinoa’s coming from – small farmers are benefiting from the higher prices, and fair trade quinoa does have a positive impact on the income of the farmers who grow it. Agribusiness, particularly in South and Latin America, is a huge, complicated issue (another thing I will investigate further in subsequent articles). I just hope, in my hopelessly idealistic way, that one day, an increase in the quality of food available in the western world doesn’t come at the expense of the people who grow it, and for whom it has been a staple of survival for centuries on end.

Is there an issue or a place you’d like to see featured in next week’s International Women’s Issues post? Let me know in the comments!


Bolivia – World Food Programme

Mothers Teaching Mothers to Combat Malnutrition

Quinoa’s Global Success Creates Quandry at Home

The Situation of Women In Bolivia


3 replies on “International Women’s Issues: Quinoa, Malnutrition, and Women in Bolivia”

This is a great post! Thank you so much for sharing it! I frequently recommend quinoa because, as you said, it’s loaded with protein, trace minerals and nutrition. Thanks so much for pointing out that it is very important to only buy quinoa sold and imported by companies participating in free trade agreements. Thanks much!

yes- thank you for this piece. There is a large movement in the southern americas against producing so much quinoa for exportation, and Evo Morales (president of Bolivia) has been spearheading it for a while now, deeming it essential to the nation’s food security, especially as a subsidized food parcel for pregnant women.

Its scary that there is so much of a disconnect with food in the states – def exampled by your piece and what happens sometimes when we dont understand whats happening behind the curtain. Another great example is Haiti and how trade liberalization has taken away access to their staple food ( rice) as it is now one of the main exports to the states.

Thanks so much for this post!  I am one of the people who has jumped on the quinoa bandwagon (two dinners in the past 10 days were quinoa) and I have never given any thought to where it was produced.  I will be looking for fair-trade quinoa in the future.  It’s also sobering to me to think that part of the reason I have been eating more quinoa is because it’s a diet-friendly food and I am sure I am not alone in that.  To think that increased Western consumption to help us lose weight is causing malnutrition in Bolivia is really grim.

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