A decade ago, quinoa (“keen-wa”) was just a little known South American grain touted by health food advocates for its plentiful amino acid composition and healthful nutritional components.
That soon changed, as many veggie proponents urged their followers to chow down on the once-obscure grain, which was only available at the time in exclusive (read, “expensive”) health food stores. Vegans embraced quinoa as a credible substitute for meat, given its relatively high protein content of about 15%.
Indeed, quinoa is a remarkable plant. The violet, crimson and orange flowering stalks growing in the semi-arid Bolivian highlands stand taller than the peasants who harvest the crop, mostly by hand. It can survive overnight frosts and searing summertime heat, necessary traits for a crop typically grown at altitudes as high as 10,000 feet where the air is as thin as the salt-laden soil.
Once a sacred crop for ancient Andean civilizations, its highly nutritious seeds caught the attention of dietary gurus and food marketers alike, and starting in the 1990s, demand skyrocketed across the developed world. In Europe, North America and more affluent Asian markets, a stampede led by chefs at trendy restaurants was on, and quinoa was soon available on supermarket shelves, in breakfast cereals, bakery products and even frozen food entrées.
According to a recent account in UK’s The Guardian newspaper, “Sales took off. Quinoa was, in marketing speak, the ‘miracle grain of the Andes,’ a healthy, ethical addition to the meat avoider’s larder (no dead animals, just a crop that doesn’t feel pain).”
Loss of land, water and food
But guess what? The surge in global demand nearly tripled its market price. Red royal quinoa now sells at about $4,500 a ton; the black variety can fetch $8,000 a ton. The result is that there is less quinoa available for the very people who have cultivated it for millennia, the indigenous populations of Bolivia and Peru.
“There are concerns this could cause malnutrition as producers, who have long relied on the so-called superfood to supplement their often limited diets, would rather sell their entire crop than eat it,” the story noted. “Rising prices have also triggered land disputes among native farmers.”
In other words, the good intentions of veggies and foodies who embraced quinoa have left poor people in Peru and Bolivia--for whom it was once a nourishing staple—unable to afford to eat it. Imported junk food is cheaper. In Lima, the Peruvian capital, quinoa now costs more than chicken. Throughout the rural areas of that country, the pressure is on to turn land that once produced a variety of native crops into a quinoa monoculture.