In the case of quinoa, the controversy that follows in the wake of this particular superfood boom isn’t about nutritional benefit or safety, but about socio-economics.
Quinoa (Yes, it’s pronounced ‘keen-wah’ and you hereby have permission to smugly correct anyone claiming otherwise), is often used as a grain-replacing food; substituting rice and couscous in many dishes. It may come as a surprise to know, then, that quinoa is actually a member of the same plant group, called goosefoot plants, as spinach, beets and, erm…tumbleweed (don’t ask). It is one superfood that actually deserves its ‘wondergrain’ status: high in protein, essential amino-acids, gluten-free and non-allergenic. Despite it being a novelty in our food cupboards, quinoa has actually been a staple in the diet of Andean people (Bolivians, Chileans and Peruvians) for thousands of years. In Incan times, it was even regarded as a gift from the gods.
So why the sudden decline in quinoa consumption in Andean populations? Do they know something we don’t? Actually, the root of the problem is money. It turns out that the huge demand for quinoa has so inflated its retail price, that local (read: poor) people can no longer afford it. It has risen from ‘comida para los Indios‘ to food for the rich. And so begins the curious quinoa debate.
Who benefits, and who loses from the quinoa boom? Well, firstly, Andean farmers are relishing their new found prosperity. Bigger houses, kids can go to university and there’s more money being pumped into the economic arteries of the country. The downside is that demand for this crop is so high that farmers are, quite literally
elbowing each other out of the way to claim land on which to grow it: tensions in the region are on the rise. Areas that once grew other crops, or more importantly, were previously grazed by llamas, are now being converted to quinoa fields en masse. Curiously, the decline in llamas is causing a major problem: soil barrenness. It turns out that llamas provide an invaluable fertiliser to the normally dry Andean region: their…well…you can work it out! Without it, soil fast loses its fertility, putting future harvests into jeopardy, and potentially the food production of an entire nation.
Another of the biggest issues of the debate is the potential for malnutrition. A few years ago, a flurry of indignant articles appeared clamouring that eating quinoa was the equivalent of contributing to the starvation of an innocent Andean child. It stemmed from a Bolivian government’s statistic that national quinoa consumption over the previous five years had decreased 34% (the latest figures actually show an increase, due to government incentives such as school lunches). However, whether local quinoa consumption is falling or rising may be somewhat irrelevant in terms of health: with more money farmers are able to buy more fruits and vegetables, healthy foods that are difficult to grow in the harsh climate of the Andes, even if they do eat less of their ‘gift from the gods’.
Do we need to feel guilty for enjoying this superfood or not? The simple answer is no. When you transform a food into a commodity, there’s inevitable breakdown in social relations and a high environmental cost. This isn’t exclusively happening with quinoa either. The solution is to continue encouraging quinoa cultivation in other parts of the world, so that eventually quinoa becomes affordable for all consumers of all income levels. In the UK, there’s the British Quinoa Company in Shropshire producing homegrown English quinoa on their farm; leading a great example. Keep enjoying this wondergrain; but buy local if possible.