Quinoa’s Exploding Popularity

Quinoa’s Exploding Popularity

From time to time I catch myself sounding incredibly smug about my diet. My choice to ditch dairy and meat was motivated entirely by a desire to improve my overall health. It was a 100% selfish decision. Yet the side effects of doing all kinds of good for the environment and animals are brag-worthy, right?

Turns out that my plant-based diet is not as entirely saintly as I’ve thought. (Self pats on the back are now being revoked.)

And the discovery all started with a seed with a funny sounding name. Quinoa, once a mispronounced thing found only in bulk bins in health food stores, has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years here in North America. Dr. Oz sang it’s praises, and suddenly BOOM, everyone is eating quinoa morning, noon and night.

Quinoa is especially popular among vegans and vegetarians because of its high protein content (between 14-18%) and richness in amino acids. I eat a lot of the stuff – mixing it in with salads, making it into an oatmeal-like pudding, and pairing it as a side to pretty much anything.

But despite all the good in quinoa, there is a dark side to all this demand. Since 2006 prices for the seed have tripled. And while that rising price is good news for the Bolivian and Peruvian farmers who grow quinoa, it’s bad news for locals who can no longer afford quinoa, once a primary staple in their diet. Sadly, imported junk and processed foods are cheaper than this locally grown crop. In Lima, a serving of chicken is cheaper than a serving of quinoa. Agriculture in these countries has undergone a rapid shift in the last 5 years; once rich in diverse crops, farmers are now opting toward monoculture, further putting produce out of reach of most people.

So it seems that skyrocketing demand for quinoa—well-intentioned, health conscious and ethics-driven—in North America and Europe, is having detrimental health effects on the populations at the source of this superfood.

It’s a tricky problem to solve. If we stopped eating quinoa in North America, the livelihoods of those farmers who grow it would be in jeopardy, and moreover the increased revenues they are injecting into their local economies would dissipate. Yet by continuing to demand the seed in such high volumes, we’re continuing to produce negative health consequences for populations elsewhere.

Sadly, this is not an isolated story. The Guardian recently compared it to our insatiable 365-day-a-year hunger for asparagus. Peru has also cornered the market for the spear-like vegetable. Unfortunately, due to the crop’s thirsty nature and Peru’s arid environment, this export crop is depleting water resources on which local populations depend. Joanna Blythman of The Guardian highlights the discrepancies this has created, “NGOs report that asparagus labourers toil in sub-standard conditions and cannot afford to feed their children while fat cat exporters and foreign supermarkets cream off the profits.”

In the face of this, omnivores perhaps have reason to be the smug ones. A meat-and-potatoes diet is far more likely to win in a battle of who’s more local than mine which is packed with things like tempeh, chickpeas, carob, tamari, and yes, quinoa. (I recognize that most animals raised for meat are fed grains grown internationally, so even if raised in a neighboring town, calling them ‘local’ is misleading.)

This isn’t to say I’m ditching the plants and heading back to the land of steak and cheese – that too is highly problematic, just for different reasons. It does however provide food for thought on the unintended consequences of the way we eat, especially when we look to overseas markets for our food. And it meant that I took pause at the grocery store last night and reached for the locally grown hemp hearts instead of quinoa.

It’s not clear cut to me as to what is the right thing to do. Export markets in developing countries provide important sources of income and can accelerate development, but the benefits are often not felt equally when that happens. How about you? Are you a locavore or international gourmand?

January 23, 2013