Since reports started circulating that, thanks to price rises caused by demand in developed countries, South American producers of quinoa can no longer afford to eat the fruits of their labours, debate has raged as to whether the grain can be enjoyed ethically…
Quinoa’s nutritional value (it’s 15% protein and contains eight essential amino acids) makes it popular amongst those looking to avoid meat. Most people understand how far a vegetarian diet can go to cutting one’s carbon footprint. Indeed, according to some reports, the rearing of livestock is responsible for half of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
Aside from massive contributions to global warming, it can be argued that the inefficiency of raising livestock (700 calories of feed produce just 100 calories worth of beef) contributes to global hunger. Given that the FAO estimates roughly 900 million people in the world are malnourished, it’s easy to see why alternatives to meat are a preferable choice.
However, with everything from food miles to wider economic factors determining a food’s green credentials, choosing what to eat has never been straightforward. So, is demand for quinoa really a problem?
In recent years quinoa has gained wide recognition as a great tasting superfood (the UN even declared 2013 to be ‘the year of quinoa’) This boom in popularity has been followed by a sharp rise in price - in five years it’s become three times as expensive.
Now, the poorest inhabitants of the Andes, where the crop is grown, are relying on cheaper, less nutritious, imported foods. With exporting countries already having problems with malnutrition (16.5% of under 5’s in Peru were malnourished in 2011) the fact that such a nutritious foodstuff is going abroad in bushels is obviously worrying.
There is also potential for over-growing to bring a whole extra set of problems. Teresa Martinez has argued intensive growing will turn the land to desert, whilst some argue that, with llama farmers leaving their practice behind to plant the sought-after crop, the soil is becoming less fertile for lack of the animals’ presence.
Despite these concerns, quinoa is still currently produced via traditional methods. Whilst growers may not be eating it in the quantities of the past, in reality, a number it’s not all down to price. Indeed, there are arguments that quinoa avoided because culturally it’s perceived as having a low value, having been a peasant food since the Spanish conquest dismantled the Inca’s ancient food systems.
By contrast, imported foods (now easily affordable thanks to the influx of money) are prized due to their novelty. To quote Víctor Hugo Vásquez: “It has to do with food culture, because if you give the kids toasted quinoa flour, they don’t want it; they want white bread.”
Others argue the price rises are a blessing. Paola Mejia, general manager of Bolivia’s Chamber of Quinoa Real and Organic Products Exporters says: “Royal quinoa has given hope to people living in Bolivia’s most destitute and forgotten region”.
However, governments such as that of Bolivia are still attempting to stop quinoa leaving the country. President Evo Morales said that he plans to make more than $10 million in loans available to quinoa producers for domestic consumption. Meanwhile, health officials have started incorporating the plant into school lunches and food packets for pregnant women.
No Straightforward Solution
Whilst there are no straightforward answers, this situation should at least lead us question how available landmass for food production is used. If there were more pressure to use land in the most efficient way possible, there would be less need for ‘supercrops’ to be imported in the first place.
Quinoa has been successfully grown in farms in the northern hemisphere. Indeed, Fife Diet report that: “With early planting and a decent season quinoa can grow fine here in Scotland and we imagine through much of the UK.”
There’s no reason that demand cannot be assuaged by creating a supply in the countries where quinoa’s craved. By using some the meat industry’s resources to the endeavour, countries on both sides of the north/south divide would stand to benefit from greater food security and a lower carbon footprint.
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Editor’s Note: What do you think? Is growing quiona becoming an exploited crop?
Steve Waller, also know as Green Steve, is an environmental blogger doing all he can to reduce his carbon footprint and help others do the same. He recently set up the Green Steve shop where you can offset carbon with every penny you spend on a wide range of products.
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