Can Markets Save Agricultural Diversity?

Quinoa as a Case Study

July 12, 2017

Emma McDonell

Quinoa’s Exceptional Interspecific Diversity

Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) has been cultivated in the Andean highlands for millennia. Domesticated five thousand to seven thousand years ago by agriculturalists living along the shores of Lake Titicaca, quinoa is one of only a handful of crops to survive in the Andean Altiplano’s harsh clime. In fact, quinoa thrives at altitudes between 2,500 and 3,900 MASL, where frequent droughts, constant aridity, and extreme diurnal temperature fluctuations present a formidable environment for most agricultural production (even hardy crops like maize and sweet potatoes that thrive just 1,000 meters closer to sea level, for instance, cannot bear fruit on the Altiplano).

Quinoa’s ability to survive in this setting is directly linked to its exceptional interspecific (or within species) diversity. Quinoa’s interspecific diversity, in turn, is a direct result of agriculturalists’ conscious efforts to cultivate quinoa diversity. There are hundreds of varieties of quinoa—between two hundred and one thousand depending on whom you ask and how they’re counting. This diversity concentrates around Lake Titicaca, quinoa’s center of origin and diversity hub, as well as the area where I am conducting dissertation fieldwork (Bazile and Baudron 2015).

A variety of colorful quinoa panojas mixed together in a single field—a rare sight post-quinoa boom (photograph by Emma McDonell, 2015).

A variety of colorful quinoa panojas mixed together in a single field—a rare sight post-quinoa boom (photograph by Emma McDonell, 2015).

As many scholars have pointed out, one of the keys to the existence of agriculture in this unforgiving environment is Andean peoples’ diligent cultivation of interspecific diversity, in quinoa as well as potatoes, kañihua, and the various native tubers that grow in the region (Mayer 2002; Zimmerer 1996). Altitudinal and corresponding climatic variations on the Altiplano are so drastic that a quinoa variety cultivated beside Lake Titicaca likely will not survive a mere 20 kilometers inland because of differences in nighttime low temperatures and humidity levels. Farmers almost never cultivate a single variety of quinoa; they strategically select a handful of varieties based on their characteristics and risk profiles, as well as the agroecological zone in which they farm. Kancolla Rosado, for instance, is a reddish-purple quinoa commonly produced in the agroecological zone that’s not directly adjacent but close to the lake. Kancolla Rosado is resistant to drought and freezes yet has a small grain size and relatively low productivity. A farmer might pair this with Blanca de Juli, a cream-colored quinoa that is vulnerable in years with heavy night freezes but has higher production levels in good warmer years and a larger grain size, as well as a couple other quinoas chosen to complement these quinoa’s advantages and drawbacks. This risk management strategy is essential to ensure farmers at least some harvest in the worst of years and to take advantage of good years with higher yielding varieties. This approach of cultivating diversity is even more necessary with each coming year as climate change brings out-of-season rains and frosts that make an already challenging climate unpredictable, making relying on a single variety less tenable.

Quinoa as a Threatened Crop

Unsurprisingly, this form of agriculture and the biodiversity it nurtures is threatened. Climate change is making already risky agricultural livelihoods in the Andean highlands increasingly challenging, while dismal market prices for native crops leave younger generations with little incentive to pursue agricultural livelihoods. Most farming families in the region where I work send at least one family member to work in the nearby mines or another more stable occupation to guarantee a paycheck for the family. Youth are moving to cities at rapid rates, many of whom have no plans to return. The combination of low market prices for highland crops and the labor-intensive nature of tending to Altiplano agriculture’s diverse farmscapes encourage youth to flee to cities. As fewer and fewer people in the Andean highlands pursue agricultural livelihoods and those that do struggle to find labor with children increasingly in cities, agronomists, agricultural development experts, have lamented that the agrobiodiversity underlying this system as at risk.

A Market Solution?

It is in this context that many actors have begun to frame the problem as an issue of insufficient markets—making the evident solution creating stronger markets for these products (Padulosi et al. 2014). The idea is that without economic incentive to grow these native crops or to practice agricultural livelihoods for that matter, farmers will abandon these economically invaluable crops for more lucrative ones or abandon agricultural livelihoods altogether and we will lose this rich diversity that depends on the work of networked farmers. In other words, a problem caused by the vagaries of capitalist markets can also supposedly be solved by creating (new) capitalist markets. Biodiversity International began a project called “Neglected and Underutilized Species” in 2008 that selected “neglected” species in Africa and the Andes with the goal of developing demand and commodity chains to save these species and their corresponding species diversity from extinction. Quinoa was one of the species selected for an intervention, which centered on creating stronger demand for quinoa and developing commodity chains that facilitated markets while spreading the idea that strong markets can save agrobiodiversity. In Peru, prominent actors involved in the country’s gastronomic boom have appropriated this discourse. They argue that by incorporating rare Peruvian crops into the high-end restaurant menus, they are creating markets for threatened crops are thus saving them from extinction. The impacts of markets on biodiversity, however, are not straightforward.

Enter the Quinoa Boom: A Natural Experiment

While the discourse surrounding creating markets for neglected and underutilized crops has been around for a couple of decades now, the quinoa boom offered a test of what happens to agrobiodiversity when a crop with “weak markets” suddenly finds itself in high demand. It provided a natural experiment to test this idea that markets will save biodiversity. Between 2012 and 2014, farm gate prices for quinoa shot up from $0.20/kilogram to $3-$4/kilogram, leaving farmers with more than enough economic incentive to cultivate quinoa. And indeed, the steady demand in international markets has ensured that quinoa as a species will not disappear into the foreseeable future. However, its impact on both farm-level diversity and interspecific diversity has been complex and overall less favorable.

At the farm level, high demand for quinoa has reorganized agroecological system characterizing highland agriculture. While a monoculture is untenable in the harsh highland environment, farms are moving closer toward that end of a spectrum. Many farmers have shortened or eliminated their crop rotations to take advantage of the high prices and began shaping their production practices around international markets (Soto et al. 2012). While a typical Altiplano crop rotation follow a potato>quinoa>oats/mashua/oca>tarwi (a legume) cycle followed by five to seven years of fallow, many farmers are now cultivating quinoa for two to three years sequentially. This tires the soil and reduces the species-level diversity, leaving farmers more vulnerable to market and climate fluctuations (Jacobsen 2011). Moreover, while quinoa’s existence into the future is ensured by higher prices, the cutting out of native crops like mashua and oca may threaten the futures of these other local crops.

While the quinoa boom has reduced the species-level diversity of farms in rather drastic ways, the impact of the boom on quinoa’s interspecific diversity has been perhaps even more pronounced. The agroecological system characterizing highland agriculture is a tough match for the requirements of commodification. While highland farming is based on diversity, commodity markets are based on uniformity. The homogenous white quinoa we see in supermarket aisles is not “natural” but instead the result of the labor of various actors along the commodity chain working to purify a heterogeneous product.

The creation and implementation of quality control standards have had the most powerful impact on quinoa’s interspecific agrobiodiversity since the boom. Environmental historian William Cronon’s (1991) investigation of the nineteenth-century commodification of wheat in the Midwestern United States provides a template for the study of grain commodification, highlighting to the central role classification systems, standards, and techniques of inspection play in the commodification of grain crops. Specifically, he addresses how “grades” allow for the mixing of different grains into a single “homogenous” commodity. Cronon argues these new forms of measurement and classification complete a “process of the alienation” of the wheat from producers by eradicating any connection between a sack of grain and its conditions of production. While previously, a farmer brought a sack of grain directly from their farm to market that represented the unique labor and ecological conditions of the farm and was potentially valued for this individuality, the creation of grain classes allowed mixing of all farms’ grain together. Thus, the uniqueness of the farmers’ labor was rendered irrelevant. This analysis underscores how the development of grades and attendant standards and inspection practices, shifts in ownership of grain, institutional innovations (e.g., the Chicago Grain Board) affect crop biodiversity.

In a similar fashion, the development of quinoa standards ensuring “quality” (clearly a subjective concept) is largely about assisting buyers to ensure that quinoa seeds from disparate farms are commensurable and mixable. In 2009, the Peruvian national government instituted national-level regulations defining classes of quinoas based on their “purity.” Each class is specified by the percentage of allowed “impurities”[1] such that “quality” is almost practically synonymous with “purity.” This definition of quality is directly at odds with highland agriculture’s basis in diversity. The standards call for large grain sizes and uniform colors (single grains of contrasting colors can mean a farmer’s entire harvest is rejected), and the colors in demand fluctuate each year such that it’s safest to cultivate white quinoa which will certainly be in demand.

The implementation of these standards has radically changed the kinds of quinoas farmers grow, disciplining farmers to conform to the logic of the commodity if they want to sell to international buyers who offer the best prices. While previously, farmers would cultivate multiple quinoas adapted to the specific ecological zone in which they live and often linked to long-standing seed exchange relationships with friends and extended family, today a handful of commercial seeds developed by the National Agricultural Innovation Institute (INIA) dominate, while farmers sell to international buyers indifferent to the specifics of their labor. While Marcel Mauss’s gift was critical to the exchange relationships actively conserving and creating quinoa diversity, the disinterested relations that alienate quinoa from its farmers are critical to the crop’s homogenization. Salcedo INIA—a quinoa with a large grain, high productivity in good weather years, and a bright white color that is very susceptible to frosts and out of season rain—is now the most commonly cultivated quinoa in the highlands for farmers looking to sell to international buyers. The rise of commercial quinoa seeds and the development of institutions to procure these uniform quinoa varieties have been critical to quinoa’s homogenization, as it ensures that farmers in diverse regions have access to identical seeds.

“Airampo” quinoa, a variety not accepted by exporters (photograph by Emma McDonell, 2017).

Airampo” quinoa, a variety not accepted by exporters (photograph by Emma McDonell, 2017).

As farmers are punished for heterogeneous quinoa either by receiving a lower price or having their quinoa rejected altogether, many now choose to grow a single kind of commercial quinoa, and if they grow more than one quinoa, they cultivate them in separate fields. While growing different quinoa varieties separately rather than mixed together in a single heteroglot field may seem like a benign change in agricultural practices, mixing quinoas in a single field has been critical to the active process of conserving and creating quinoa diversity. Quinoas cross-pollinate easily, spontaneously creating new varieties that blend traits of existing varieties when they are grown in close proximity. Yet, increasingly, agronomists and buyers recommend farmers separate their quinoas and develop “natural barriers” between fields to maintain the “purity” of varieties by further inhibiting quinoa’s ability to cross-pollinate.

In conclusion, the idea that saving agrobiodiversity depends on creating markets for threatened crops is questionable at best. The case of quinoa diversity following the quinoa boom shows that capitalist markets have different impacts on different kinds of diversity. While markets may ensure that quinoa doesn’t disappear, the logic of the commodity means that quinoa must be made uniform, while the logic of economies of scale means that farmers will need to increase quinoa production at the expense of other crops to make a profit. While the idea that creating demand for threatened crops is alluring to development experts and consumers concerned about these issues, the quinoa boom shows that capitalist markets and their attendant requirements make commodification a questionable route for conserving agrobiodiversity.

Emma McDonell
is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at Indiana University. She is currently conducting dissertation research on the cultural politics of the quinoa boom and bust in the highlands of Peru and Bolivia, examining the issues small farmers face in defending their stake in an increasingly globalized quinoa market and mechanized production landscape.


[1] In this definition, impurities include anything that detracts from a given quantity’s uniformity, such as grains of different varieties as indexed by difference in size, color, and broken grains.


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Cronon, William. 1991. Nature’s Metropolis. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Jacobsen, Sven-Erik. 2011. “The Situation of Quinoa for the Bolivian Altiplano: From Economic Success to Environmental Disaster.” Journal of Agronomy and Crop Science 197 (5): 390–399.

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Padulosi, Stefano, Karen Amaya, Mattias Jäger, Elisabetta Gotor, Wilfredo Rojas, and Roberto Valdivia. 2014. “A Holistic Approach to Enhance the Use of Neglected and Underutilized Species: The Case of Andean Grains in Bolivia and Peru.” Sustainability 6 (3): 1283–1312.

Soto, J., E. Valdivia, R. Valdivia, A. Cuadros, and R. Bravo. 2012. “descripción de sistemas de rotación de cultivos en parcelas de producción de quinua en cuatro zonas (siete distritos) del altiplano peruano.” CienciAgro 2 (3): 391–402.

Zimmerer, Karl S. 1996. Changing Fortunes: Biodiversity and Peasant Livelihood in the Peruvian Andes. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Cite as: 
McDonell, Emma. 2017. “Can Markets Save Agricultural Diversity?: Quinoa as a Case Study. EnviroSociety, 12 July.

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