Is Quinoa Ethical?

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Straight from the Forq Kitchen!
by Becca Pusey


Is Quinoa Ethical?

Is quinoa ethical? It’s a question that has had both organic food lovers and hipster-hating carnivores up in arms ever since an article published in The Guardian newspaper back in January 2013. ‘Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?’, it asked. The article, and the arguments that followed, evoked strong opinions from both sides of the fence. Who knew people could get so angry about a humble grain from South America!

So let’s start : why would some people believe quinoa is an unethical crop? We’re going to need a quick review of the grain’s history.

Quinoa remained widely unknown (or at least not present on the global stage) until very recently; though, in the last few years, quinoa has skyrocketed in popularity in the West.

Quinoa

Quinoa originated in the Andean mountain region of South America, and has been a staple food for the farmers who grow it there since before the Romans empire in Europe and Asia (that’s over 3000 years, for you non-history buffs). In fact, quinoa always used to be thought of as peasant food, not something prized cuisine was made of. Quinoa remained widely unknown (or at least not present on the global stage) until very recently; though, in the last few years, quinoa has skyrocketed in popularity in the West, quickly becoming the newest trendy superfood that everyone believes will make them healthier, lower their cholesterol, and makeover their body tone. Everybody who’s anybody is getting involved in the quinoa lovefest. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization even declared 2013 as International Year of Quinoa (a grain…with a year DEDICATED to it…amazing.).

Quinoa’s huge increase in popularity in recent years has had a meaningful impact on the quinoa farmers in Bolivia and Peru, who grow 92% of the world’s quinoa supply. The price of the quinoa crop has risen dramatically, but while that would seem incredible on the surface, this is the major question being asked: has quinoa’s price increase been good or bad for the communities that grow it?

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Those who argue that quinoa is not ethical advance the idea that farmers and their local communities in Peru and Bolivia can no longer afford to eat the quinoa crop they work to produce, and that their diets are becoming impoverished as a result. Since these communities now sell their crop for dramatically higher prices (the price the farmers receive for their quinoa crop has tripled since 2006), it’s all too tempting to seek these prices, rather than keep their harvests for themselves. And this means they’re likely spending their profits on cheaper, less nutritious foods like pasta and rice – and even Western foods like candy and Coke, which can be viewed as high-status foods in the poor regions of the Andes.

Seems a straightforward argument, and there is evidence to support it. However, Tanya Kerssen from the think tank Food First writes that, just like any other human community, quinoa growers often don’t want to exist on quinoa alone, and have a need to use their increased earnings to bring variety into their diets.

In fact, due to the dramatic increase in the amount of quinoa being produced, quinoa consumption in Bolivia, where it comes from, has actually tripled over the last 5 years, according to Emma Banks, who works for the Andean Information Network, an NGO. This continues to raise the question of exactly how impoverished the diets of these local communities has become, and whether the rise of quinoa’s popularity globally is actually hurting these local communities that produce it, or not.

Quinoa

There is also an environmental consideration in this argument that can’t be ignored: the growing demand for quinoa production is causing farmers to carve out more farmland to produce it. More quinoa leads to more land needing to be cleared so the quinoa crop can be cultivated.Lands that were previously used for grazing llamas are now used for quinoa production; and this is problematic because llama poo is the best fertiliser for quinoa fields (I’m going to suggest you try not to think about that next time you’re tucking into your newest quinoa recipe).

So, to ease pressure on Andean farmers – and, really, to get a bigger wedge of the quinoa ‘profit pie’ – other parts of the world are beginning to experiment with quinoa production. Quinoa is a hardy crop, able to be grown at any altitude and at a variety of temperatures (anything from -4°C up to 35°C! Far more hard-wearing than I am when I’m camping). Quinoa is already being grown in Colorado and the Pacific Northwest, and although US farmers have had varying levels of success with the crop, US researchers at Washington State University who just received a $1.6 million grant from the USDA are hoping to change that.

The Guardian’s article shocked many by questioning what seemed like an obvious win: the quinoa grain is healthy, high in protein, naturally gluten-free, and supports farmers in the developing world… so it was important that everyone buying their neat little 4 serving quinoa boxes from their local grocery store sit up and take notice of the impact their participation with this new food may be causing communities as much as 15,000 miles away. But it’s not a simple debate and it doesn’t have a simple answer, much as The Guardian might like to have proclaimed (shocking headlines do sell newspapers, after all. Subtlety and nuance never won an argument). While the growing demand for quinoa worldwide has undoubtedly had some positive impact on Andean quinoa growers, it must be argued that quinoa farmers have had trouble keeping up with the increase in demand, and that their diets may be changing rapidly, and for the worse, as a consequence.
So – should we boycott quinoa altogether?

Michael Wilcox, a filmmaker currently producing a documentary about quinoa titled ‘The Mother Grain’, points out that boycotting quinoa would do more harm than good; the growers would end up with no income at all! Anthropologist Pablo Laguna agrees, saying that the net benefits of quinoa’s growth in popularity outweigh the costs. It’s hard to argue with a threefold increase in earnings.

Quinoa

Boycotting quinoa altogether may not be a good idea. We can, though, make sure we’re buying Fair Trade quinoa, which helps ensure farmers are receiving a fair price for their crop, allowing them to reinvest in their farms, their diets, and their communities.

As long as people in the West continue their love affair with quinoa, there will always be people considering the well-being of the quinoa growers themselves – we must for any food that is flown in from thousands of miles away. Due to the issue becoming more widely recognised, Bolivian president Evo Morales recently gave the country’s quinoa farmers a $10 million loan to invest in their farms. The Bolivian government is also providing quinoa to pregnant and nursing women, and to school kids, to ensure that the people most in need of quinoa’s nutrition continue to have access to it despite its rising cost. Steps are being taken to combat access and pricing issues.

Is quinoa ethical? Should we continue our love affair with the superfood grain-that’s-not-actually-a-grain?

Just remember to buy the good stuff, not the terribly un-Fair-Trade cheap stuff. Keep an eye on the news and make sure quinoa growers are being looked after. There is more discussion to be had and certainly more arguing to do, but any sudden action can make these challenges much worse. We have to be ethical and informed foodies, and food produced to the highest standards nutritionally as well as ethically is certainly worth paying for.

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Who’s Cooking Today

Becca Pusey

Becca Pusey is a freelance recipe developer and food writer based in Hertfordshire, UK. She blogs over at Amuse Your Bouche, where she shares her favourite simple vegetarian recipes using everyday ingredients. She aims to show that vegetarian food can be just as easy to make, just as satisfying, and just as tasty as any meat dish. Oh, and she likes cheese, a lot.

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