Is it OK to eat Quinoa?

On May 1, 2014

Love quinoa? Not sure yet? We’ve got news about quinoa stocks at The New Leaf Co-op. We also put some of the recent debate about the political implications of eating quinoa in a bit of context, and ask whether this ‘super grain’ is really any different to all the other globalized foodstuffs finding their way onto Western plates.

First up, we’ve got news about our quinoa… it’s a mixed bag:

The not so good news: The price of our organic Bolivian quinoa has gone up. Where previously the price for 500g quinoa was £3.37, as of this week our price is going up to £7.03 for 500g. The reason for this is simple, global demand is skyrocketing, and so too are export prices for this nutty tasting South American ‘super grain’. We’ve held out for quite a while, but sadly our prices are going to have to follow suit.
The great news: We now have UK grown quinoa! From the fantastic folks at Hodmedod’s. It’s not organic, but it is a lot more local than Bolivia. It’s your call on which one you go for.

What is Quinoa?

For those of you who don’t know, quinoa is a grain-like food with an impressive nutritional portfolio. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), quinoa “is the only plant food that contains all the essential amino acids, trace elements and vitamins and contains no gluten.” In fact, such is their praise for the grain that 2013 was declared the “International Year of Quinoa” by the FAO(1).

The Problems:

Grown in Peru and Bolivia, in regions that are broadly inhospitable to many other foodstuffs, quinoa  provides a nutritional food staple and a livelihood to many farming families. However, as demand has grown in the West for this wonder food, the political implications of eating imported quinoa have come increasingly under the spotlight. A particular article in the Guardian got a lot of attention last year, and brought many of these arguments to light. Whilst that article seemed to blame vegans for the problems associated with quinoa (2) (which is absurd), it brought a number of more sensible arguments to light. The problems associated with the booming quinoa trade are outlined below, and also more fully in these articles featured in The Guardian (not the vegan blaming article) and Al Jazeera.
These articles raise conserns that the lucrative export market for quinoa is fuelling malnutrition in the region where it is grown (Bolivia charts a 24% rate of malnutrition amongst its population). Producers are choosing to export their whole crop, and are opting to put less nutrient dense foodstuffs like wheat or rice on their own plates. Due to rising prices, poorer people in Andean towns and cities are finding themselves priced out of the quinoa market altogether. The New York Times reports that the Bolivian government are improving access to quinoa via social programmes for nursing mothers and school children, yet still domestic consumption of quinoa fell 34% in the 5 years prior to 2011 (3).

Loans and subsidies have fuelled a return to villages for many urban dwellers, yet social friction has reportedly accompanied this. Violent disputes have erupted over previously derelict lands that are suddenly sought-after for quinoa production.

There are environmental concerns as well. Abandonment of traditional farming practices, in the dash for high yields, the decline of crop rotation and the sale of llama herds are leading to nitrogen depletion and soil degradation in the region.

Quinoa in context:

All of the zeitgeist around quinoa and its attendant social and environmental problems, partially obscures the fact that there are many Western-driven food markets out there, and in this sense quinoa is not unique. In fact, it could be worse. As an Al Jazeera article notes, quinoa production is still mostly in the hands of small and medium farms.  The Guardian adds that “unlike other southern-hemisphere commodities prized in the global north, like coffee and cocoa, quinoa, for the most part, isn’t grown on big plantations owned by a powerful elite(4)”.

It has been reported that some of the decline in quinoa consumption in Bolivia and Peru is because of the low status associated with it, and so people exercising their consumer preference for more high status options.. “If you give them boiled water, sugar and quinoa flour mixed into a drink, they prefer Coca-Cola” said Víctor Hugo Vásquez, the Bolivian vice minister of rural development and agriculture said to the New York Times in 2011 (5).

We need to have perspective on the fact that food industry is globalized, and we in the West are used to a mind boggling array of food choices. We’re always looking for the next super food (6)  and can choose from cuisines from all over the world. Why should we be surprised and perhaps even a little indignant, when producers of foods for Western export markets, join us at the table of globalised foodstuffs? So yes, these South American people’s choices are probably heavily influenced by marketing from industries and corporations, but so are our choices. Global consumption habits are mediated by the large businesses that control our food resources, and it seems unreasonable to expect that we reap the nutty tasting, nutritious benefits of that, whilst expecting that Andean farmers remain traditional and unchanging.

To add historical context to this, it seems that quinoa as a crop was nearly eradicated after the Spanish conquest of the region, to make way for production of wheat, potatoes and other crops (7). Some have pointed out that the recent growth of quinoa as an export crop was actually given a kick-start by US and other foreign aid organisations (8).

So, quinoa: Nearly eradicated by European occupiers, and then brought back with the financial backing of Western aid organisations. It is clear that Western involvement in Bolivia and Peru, and in quinoa as a crop stretches back way further than sensationalist vegan-baiting articles in The Guardian in 2013 would have us believe. I would be willing to bet that we could see analogous stories of  political and economic colonialism, and much worse besides, lurking in the pasts (and presents) of many of the foods that find their way to our table.

So is it OK to eat quinoa? Really, it’s a choice. Andean quinoa comes with problems, but so do many other foods. But we do have a responsibility to think about where our food has come from. We should be putting together diets that promote producers’ autonomy, support people in struggle, that that are local, organic and sustainable AND nutritious AND delicious. And if, when we’ve thought about all that, we can find a place for quinoa (either local and not organic OR Bolivian and organic) then great. Yes, quinoa has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, but we shouldn’t make it our scapegoat. Sensationalism is no replacement for responsibly engaging with where our food comes from: All of it! Not just one ‘grain’, however super it is.











Leave a Reply