February 25, 2013 by Meg G.
I was about to post my second delicious quinoa recipe of the week, but I need to back up a bit. Quinoa (pronounced KEE-no-ah) has become increasingly popular in the United States. Known as a “superfood” for its high nutritional value, quinoa seems to be all the rage these days. But, over at the From Scratch Club Goodreads group, Jackie from Auburn Meadow Farm brought up what is commonly referred to as the “Quinoa Quandary.” As this pseudograin has grown in popularity, the impact on the Bolivian farmers and their ecosystem has been a mix of positive and negative.
Almost two years ago, The New York Times covered this story, explaining some of the dynamics of quinoa’s growing global success: “The surge has helped raise farmers’ incomes here in one of the hemisphere’s poorest countries. But there has been a notable trade-off: Fewer Bolivians can now afford it, hastening their embrace of cheaper, processed foods and raising fears of malnutrition in a country that has long struggled with it.”
In addition to concerns about the nutritional impact of the rising cost of quinoa, Climate Connections, a blog focused on the intersections of social injustice, ecology, and the economy, points out that there is also a serious environmental concern. In the words of Tanya Kerrson, “Quinoa production is expanding at a break-neck pace in one of the most vulnerable ecosystems on the planet: the fragile soils and native pastures of the Bolivian high plateau (Altiplano). These lands were once carefully managed with fallow (rest) periods of eight years or more. Now many areas are in near-constant production, threatening to destroy the soil’s fertility.”
Kind of a bummer, right?
Honestly, I had come across a headline about the impact of quinoa a few weeks ago and I just couldn’t bring myself to click on it. I didn’t want to know the truth, because I knew it would force me to take a long look at my own consumer habits. But when Jackie posted the Climate Connections article, I felt like it was time to face the facts. This is really only the tip of the iceberg – my research dug up more articles than I had time or the will power to read through. (But if you’re curious, check out this one from Time and this thoughtful blog post from The Green Plate.) It’s got me wondering about what my responsibility is as a consumer here in the United States. Should I stop buying quinoa? Is Fair Trade quinoa the solution? Like most things in this world, the question of whether or not to buy quinoa is not easily answered. So, where from here?
First of all, I know that I need to resist the urge to ignore the facts. No more turning away from the potentially difficult headlines. Educating myself is essential if I’m going to claim to be a conscious consumer.
Second, I need to remember that grains and pseudograins are a piece of what the From Scratch Club’s recent podcast calls the “locavore puzzle.” Many of us have become accustomed and committed to buying local vegetables, fruits, meat, and fish. But what about locally grown grains? We can’t buy locally harvested quinoa, but can we buy other quasi-local grains? (Homework assignment.)
Last, while I’m not sure I will give up on quinoa altogether, I’d like to commit to buying only fairly traded quinoa. This might involve some research on my part, since I haven’t seen it in my local grocery store yet, but the impact of fair trade is worth it: “By choosing Fair Trade Certified™ quinoa, you are helping farmers and their families earn better wages for their hard work, allowing them to hold on to their land, keep their kids in school, preserve their cultural heritage and invest in the quality and productivity of their harvest. With Fair Trade, Bolivians are one step closer to eliminating food scarcity and making sure there is enough quinoa for all who want and need it.”
Obviously I’m not an expert. I’m still figuring out how to be a conscious and ethical consumer and I’m so grateful to have some of you wonderful people accompany me in that process. I’d love to hear your thoughts, folks, so chime in!