Quinoa Conundrum

February 6th, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

Is eating the ancient grain actually bad for the people who produce it?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

My Facebook feed has recently been cluttered with foodie friends bemoaning the end of their quinoa days, and talking about how they’d use the remaining “stash” in their pantries from here on out.

It all stems from the idea that the demand for the so-called “miracle grain,” a high-protein staple of ancient Andean cultures that has become the go-to food among vegans and (wealthy) whole foods devotees, has become so popular that the price has tripled since 2006. As its prices have soared, papers like The Guardian UK report that quinoa is becoming too expensive for its own growers to eat. Imported junk food is now cheaper, The Guardian reports, than the area’s most indigenous food.

The quinoa problem may also be indicative of a broader trend – the increasing demand for some foods driving up prices for the poorer people who produce them. All in all, “There’s no denying an overall trend in global food production,” writes Esquire’s Paul Wachter, “in which First World appetites drive Third World cultivation, often with deleterious economic and environmental effects.”

But according to Ari LeVaux at Slate, what the quinoa issue really amounts to is a lot of media hand wringing. The idea that worldwide demand for quinoa is causing undue harm is an oversimplification at best, he writes. “At worst, discouraging demand for quinoa could end up hurting producers rather than helping them.” In fact, because quinoa is one of the very few things that will grow on the cold 14,000-foot Andean Altiplano, its higher price means more economic opportunities for farmers – including the ability to diversify their diets with vegetables they wouldn’t have been able to buy before.

The Slate article blasts the Guardian piece for seeming “as much a hit-piece on vegetarians and vegan as on quinoa eaters.” It points to this Guardian passage: “Britain excels in producing meat and dairy foods…However, a rummage through the shopping baskets of vegetarians and vegans swiftly clocks up the food miles, a consequence of their higher dependency on products imported from faraway places.” LeVaux counters this argument by pointing out that, “Locavores in the United States can take heart in the fact that farmers in Oregon and Colorado are figuring out how to grow it.” And though the domestic product sells out quickly enough that quinoa devotees will still need to turn to the Altiplano for their grain, “That’s not a bad thing.”

Where do you stand on the quinoa issue? Are the media reports of shortages among producers making you pass it up at the grocery store, or are the stories overblown?