Superfood to the Rescue?

 /  Nov. 15, 2013, 7:30 a.m.


When the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) announced last summer that 2013 would be the “International Year of Quinoa,” many media outlets around the world responded in a surprisingly negative way. In an article entitled “Can Vegans Stomach the Unpalatable Truth About Quinoa?” Joanna Blythman of the British Guardian described the enthusiasm surrounding the food as “increasingly misplaced,” while Jean Friedman-Rudovsky of Time Magazine warned of a “dangerous cycle” that is quickly becoming “a double edged sword.” While it remains to be seen whether these comments suppress the insatiable global demand for quinoa, they should act as a starter for humanitarian dialogue regarding the nascent commodity’s growing pains and potential solutions to them.

For experts around the world familiar with quinoa, the FAO’s Year of Quinoa designation came as no surprise. Once described by NASA as “virtually unrivaled” in terms of nutritional content, quinoa contains all essential amino acids and is a major source of protein, unique among global staples such as corn, rice, and wheat.

Environmentalists rave about the plant’s ability to adapt to arid, infertile climates without the use of toxic fertilizers, making it a perfect candidate for regions where the effects of climate change are causing arable land to disappear rapidly. Its famously low water usage makes it an attractive alternative to commercial rice and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), whose infamous irrigation demands are rapidly draining aquifers worldwide.

Quinoa also lends itself well to the UN’s celebration of indigenous cultures and fair trade. Farming methods for the crop have changed little since its inception before the time of the Inca, and almost all of the two hundred and fifty thousand acres grown worldwide are still cultivated by local farmers. Quinoa prices have skyrocketed past $2,000 per ton in recent years, providing widespread economic security to the historically impoverished Altiplano region in Bolivia. There, quinoa is a traditional crop, with strong growers’ unions and fair trade groups keeping the direct relationship from local farmer to first world consumer free of corporate malfeasance.

The high price quinoa fetches in American and European supermarkets, while benefitting farmers, has some outside observers up in arms. Recent reports from the Andes claim that the crop has become prohibitively expensive for low-income local urbanites, ironically denying them much-needed access to a plant that grows nearby. As the New York Times reported in 2011, though quinoa prices had tripled over the last five years, Bolivian consumption of it decreased 34 percent. More Bolivians and Peruvians are turning instead to cheaper imported foods, such as pasta and white bread, creating nutritional problems hitherto unseen.

Quinoa poses environmental risks as well. The explosion of quinoa production across South America over the past half decade has left little room for llama farming, another key component of local agricultural production and necessary for the fertilization of local fields. The resulting soil depletion could, as Friedman-Rudovsky put it, “[sterilize] a region that has sustained Andean civilizations for millennia.” There is a precedent for native crops wreaking havoc in the Latin America. For example, the meteoric rise of the soya and acai berry plants in the 1990s and 2000s caused the clearing of millions of acres of rainforest and the destruction of ecosystems.

As for expanding production to non-indigenous regions, while agronomic tests in Scandinavia, Kenya, and the Indus Valley have shown promising yields, little is known about how globalizing the crop would affect its biological structure, not to mention its impact on local ecosystems. In eagerness to streamline quinoa production and capitalize on its profits, agricultural giants such as Monsanto many end up morphing quinoa and potentially nullifying many of its advantages. Food analysts such as Tanya Kerssen of the Food First Think Tank warn that the “[transformation of] a food into a commodity” engenders an “inevitable breakdown in social relations and high environmental cost.”

Given the signs that quinoa may be going the way of acai and soya, it would be all too easy to dismiss it as yet another attempt by well-intentioned activists to globalize and commercialize a locally beneficial crop gone awry. But the reality of quinoa’s downsides is much more complex, and offers hope for learning from previous failures. Fair trade groups such as Alter Eco have contested the claim that high prices are to blame for the drop in quinoa consumption by Bolivians, pointing to the large amounts still being purchased on the streets of La Paz by rich and poor alike. In response to the Guardian’s article, Ari LeVaux of wrote a piece entitled “It’s Okay to Eat Quinoa,” attributing the changing palate of Andeans to their communities’ increasing incomes, arguing that the young generations of the new-middle class simply prefer the taste of American processed foods to the stigmatized “peasant grain.” By discouraging the First World from eating it, LeVaux says, quinoa skeptics “threaten to kick the legs out from under one of the most promising industries in one of the world's poorest places.”

To be sure, uncertainties about the expansion of quinoa production raise valid questions. As pro-quinoa advocates have pointed out, there are many actions the governments of quinoa-producing countries can take to help encourage stability. Many states give massive subsidies to cereal producers that could be partially reallocated to quinoa farmers to increase competitiveness. Quinoa-based nutritional programs for mothers and children could be expanded to reach a wider variety of citizens. Legal enforcement of land ownership to avoid disputes over cropland is desperately needed. Incentives for mixed use farming and crop rotation would help to avoid soil depletion, allowing the growth of quinoa to be much more sustainable. Perhaps the best suggestion has come from the Rockefeller Foundation, whose paper “South America: Trends and Challenges for Development” warns against “the impending quinoa monoculturization.” The paper notes that since “quinoa is among several other nutritious foods that the Andean culture has produced … promoting a basket of goods rather than individual products may help change the social stigma of native food, which can be a deterrent for local consumption.”

Despite its problems, the quinoa movement is too exciting and integral to agriculture’s future to remain largely undiscussed, both by American consumers and the international community. With the world’s population expected to swell to 9.6 billion by 2050 and traditional farmland to be cut in half, unorthodox solutions to anticipated massive food shortages are both attractive and imperative. By failing to discuss quinoa’s viability or dismissing it altogether, we may be ignoring one of the last best hopes of feeding ourselves.

Johnathan Guy


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