Quinoa: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

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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.

Quinoa Superfood

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.”

Photo from Juan Karita/AP

Photo from Juan Karita/AP

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.

Quinoa Real grown near Uyuni on the Bolivian Altiplano. Mount Tunupa in the background. Photo credit: Mark Philbrick/BYU

Quinoa Real grown near Uyuni on the Bolivian Altiplano. Mount Tunupa in the background. Photo credit: Mark Philbrick/BYU via The Green Plate

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.”

Fair Trade LogoConscious Consumer Logo

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!

10 thoughts on “Quinoa: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

  1. Great post Meg; I really enjoyed snooping around your blog 🙂

    “I know that I need to resist the urge to ignore the facts,” but there’s so many facts about so many issues to resist ignoring.

    I love what Hugh Fearnly Whittingstall says about our shopping blinders:

    “The cruel practices I have mentioned have been increasingly publicized and clearly do not have popular support. Numerous polls and surveys indicate that the vast majority of the public objects to them and would like to see them banned. So surely they soon will be. Won’t they?

    Not just yet, it seems. Because the same moral majority of the pollster’s main street becomes the immoral majority, once they get behind the wheels of a shopping cart. They continue to buy the products they are so quick to condemn. So these appalling, abusive practices, it turns out, do have popular support – albeit that the supporters are in denial (it seems that nothing suppresses the exercise of conscience as effectively as the words ‘Buy one, get one free’). But there’s no getting away from it: if you buy something, you support the system that produces it.”

    Le sigh… the price for the Fair Trade will definitely separate the walkers from the talkers…

    • Meg G. says:

      Thanks, Jackie. Again, I appreciate your thoughtfulness around this issues.

      “Shopping blinders,” indeed! The Whittingstall quote points to the persuasive power of the almighty dollar. Sometimes I do think that it’s conscious. We might know that buying fair trade is better, but sometimes that sticker shock is tough to swallow (or just out of reach) and so make the less just purchase. Other times, I think that the information as presented in polls (do you support cruelty to animals?) doesn’t always translate to concrete consumer practice because things go in one ear and out the other. If we don’t actually take the time to educate ourselves and internalize that new information, it’s easy to simply walk in a store and shop like a robot – on a mission to feed our families at the best prices.

      When it comes down to it, it’s next to impossible to shop justly ALL the time, in every purchase. That’s a sad fact. But we can do our small part and advocate for a more just world in which it is easier (and cheaper!) to make ethical choices.

      • Considering our impact on others stretches our collective ability to know the truth about ourselves. Many people aren’t willing to be so honest with and about themselves.

        I work in a butcher shop and I see daily how closed people can be about learning anything that conflicts with what they want to know. Sometimes it makes it difficult for me to be courteous, lol.

      • Meg G. says:

        Right-on, Jackie. Self-reflection is a key to addressing what we don’t know we don’t know.

  2. Meg G. says:

    Hi everyone – thanks for jumping in here with some of your thoughts! It’s not easy being thoughtful about what we eat, but it’s good to know I’ve got great company.

    Last night, after I posted, I happened to be reading Tal Ronnen’s The Conscious Cook and in it he interviews a man named Don McKinley. Turns out, Don is partially responsible for bringing quinoa harvesting to the states. When I did a little more digging, I found that the box of quinoa in my pantry – Ancient Harvest Quinoa – is his brand! They import quinoa seed and then grow it in the United States (started in CO and moved to CA). While I’m uncertain of how this may impact the Bolivian economy, it’s interesting to know that quinoa is actually grown in the US.

    If you’re interested in reading more – this interview from 1985 tells the story of how a few people brought quinoa harvesting to the US: http://www.quinoa.net/127/136.html

  3. saltedplates says:

    I also saw the headlines about this and wanted to avoid it. I’ve been enjoying quinoa for about 10 years and don’t plan on eliminating it from my diet. But I agree we need to buy fair trade if possible and try to use local grains. Glad that the FSC book selection is definitely expanding my grain choices when cooking.

  4. g says:

    The other thing that I have felt this same way about is that it is now part of the GMO world…I am now wondering if this is what will happen to all msin stream food? Scared to do more research….

  5. Great information. I’ve also been going through an internal struggle with Quinoa, and I’m so bummed because I JUST started utilizing it in some great dishes. I’d like to say I’m going to change my purchasing habits, but I’m afraid I’ll be hearing myself think “ehh, what’s this cup of Quinoa from the Co-Op going to hurt”

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