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Is Our Enthusiasm for Quinoa Misplaced?

Quinoa is kind of a thing. As far as grains go, it’s definitely having a moment. Foodies and healthy eaters alike go gaga for this Peruvian export that was, in recent memory, an obscure offering sold only at whole food shops. Quinoa is tasty, low-fat, and packed with protein and amino acids. It’s a delightful meat substitute for vegans and vegetarians, and it will certainly lend your dinner plate a dose of novelty. Consequently, quinoa prices have tripled since 2006 as westerners embrace the food that has been called “the miracle grain of the Andes“–and certain exotic varietals command even higher price tags!

cooked quinoa dinner photos

Here’s the problem with this otherwise feel-good foodstuff, however: before quinoa was the latest craze in the U.S., it was an inexpensive local staple of Peruvian and Bolivian diets. Quinoa may be trendy and exciting here, but it has humble roots. Trouble is, the skyrocketing demand for quinoa has driven prices so high that the poor people who once subsisted on this healthy starch can no longer afford it. Quinoa is more expensive than chicken in Lima right now. Consequently, impoverished families are turning to cheaper imported junk food. It’s a situation that can–and should!–bring up some serious questions of ethics for consumers.

Quinoa is not the first “premium food” to drive issues of food security in developing areas, and it’s not even the only one doing so right now. Do you like asparagus? So does everyone else. That’s why Peru grows asparagus year-round–the nation has worked hard to corner the world market. Asparagus crops require a lot of water, however the region where most growing is concentrated is a dry one. As a result, the export asparagus has all but drained the local water resources and imperiled the resources locals depend upon to live. Plus, the asparagus is generally farmed by workers laboring in “sub-standard” conditions, who can barely afford to feed their own families. If this makes you feel a little (or a lot) icky the next time you pick up a package of asparagus, you aren’t alone.

It’s easier for omnivores to eat a varied locavore diet than it is for vegans and vegetarians. Eating local is an awesome initiative that can make a big difference in terms of working towards less destruction of our planet and less disruption of global economies and living situations, but it is really tough for veggie-lovers to eat a balanced, interesting diet without depending on imported foods. How many vegetarians do you know, for instance, who don’t eat at least a small amount of soy products? Soya production on a level that keeps pace with global demand is a large contributor to South American deforestation. All sorts of legumes and veggies come from far-flung locales, and it’s not that easy to replace all those nutrients and variety.

Since there is no really good answer, I suppose the burden falls on each of us individually to decide our own comfort level with consuming imported foods. Whether you are crazy for quinoa or have an affinity for asparagus, it would be seriously misguided to turn a blind eye to the ethical issues implicit in the transport of your dinner to your kitchen. I’m not saying that cutting these items entirely is the “right” answer, but I do think it’s something everyone should think about.

  • Elise

    Well-written piece and indeed something we all have to realise and think about. It seems hard nowadays to have a balanced diet and doing ethically the right thing. On the one hand, economy depends on western countries buying the products, on the other hand, the demand from western countries is exploding and causes all these kind of problems… what to do?!

    • It really can be tough to juggle all the information and make informed choices so I always find it interesting to see what new perspective comes out on the food-fads. Thanks for reading and sharing!