ColumnIf quinoa starts to grow in your backyard, what happens to the farmers that made it big?
In the last decade, quinoa has seen more than fifteen minutes of fame. It has become the beloved grain of vegetarians and carnivores alike, touted for its nutritional superfood benefits of high protein as well as magnesium, iron and calcium. It’s good for the gluten intolerant, can be used in cakes and even got its own year of official celebration.
But despite quinoa’s popularity, there has been one thing that has kept the eco-savvy, locavore feeling just a little bad about its consumption: it’s not often grown in our backyard. Quinoa is certainly not a guilt-free grain.
Quinoa is a grain of the Andes, domesticated some 3,000-4,000 years ago, with locals making it a part of their daily diet for centuries, until the health food craze hit, and every natural food provider from Whole Foods to upscale organic vegan cafes in Manhattan started offering it. Finally, we had a complete protein that seemed to do no harm. Or so we thought.
While a rise in global demand for quinoa helped raise farmers’ incomes – quinoa currently sells for over $3,000 a ton, three times as much as it was sold for only five years ago – it also pushed up prices, making a grain that had for so long been a staple of the regional diet inaccessible to locals.
The healthy juice-cleanse-loving-yogi could eat their quinoa salad in Boulder, but on the other side of the hemisphere, the local Bolivian farmer was forced to opt for more processed foods, and increase in demand threatened the production’s sustainability. Such is the ongoing dilemma of the global food market.
The easiest solution appears to be growing it locally in the regions that demand it. Quinoa cultivation now takes place everywhere from the United States to Sweden to Kenya. But even expanding quinoa production to a global level comes with its own set of problems.
While quinoa has begun to be cultivated outside of the Andes, the grain is still most successful in its native region of cool, dry highlands. Growing it elsewhere will require finding a variety that will not only be successful in other climates, but that we consumers will want to eat. But there’s another thing that leaves many unsettled: the farmers.
At a recent gathering of agricultural researches brought together for a sort of quinoa summit at Washington State University in Pullman, that’s exactly the question that was brought up: what about the farmers? Here is a grain that for centuries has been kept alive by the Bolivian people – even in 2012, Bolivia was responsible for 46 percent of the quinoa consumed in the world – and as it hits the global market, will they be able to reap the benefits?
Ultimately, it’s a question of fairness, and one that the Bolivian government feels so strongly about that it is working hard to keep control over quinoa varieties. As NPR’s The Salt blog highlights, it won’t give samples to plant breeders in the U.S.
While that might seem harsh, it could be the only way to provide any sense of protection to the Bolivian farmers that have been responsible for quinoa’s success. By going global, quinoa ultimately could become a local product, which is good for both economies and the environment, but in this global scheme, protecting quinoa’s heritage is of the utmost importance.
We have seen far too many losers when it comes to the global market, and while quinoa might be the star of the food world, it shouldn’t come at the cost of the people and the land that helped make it so.
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This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at www.foodieunderground.com.
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