Quinoa is mostly found clinging to the mountain fields of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador and incredibly has been growing for domestic purposes since 3000BC. It forms a very important part of the natives’ staple diet, being nutritious, easily attainable and also extremely cheap – at least it used to be.
Pronounced keen-wa (not qui-no-a), the increasingly popular crop is a hugely profitable export for some South American countries. It has recently been hailed as a new “superfood” in the West, because it contains essential amino acids and high levels of calcium, phosphorous and iron. It doesn’t taste too bad either, with a subtle nutty flavour and interesting texture. Along with a quick cooking time, it seems to be an all-round winner and is regularly seen on restaurant menus and supermarket aisles all over the UK.
Fantastic we say, its great that we are trying new things, especially when it’s so good for us. But – and it’s a fairly big but – our love of quinoa has caused the price to skyrocket over the last few years. In fact, the price of quinoa has tripled since 2006, and not just in the Western countries. It has been a huge and surprising boom for the producers, but in Peru and Bolivia where the majority of it is grown, the prices have increased so much that those who depend on it to feed their families are no longer able to afford it, and what was once a staple part of the locals’ diet is being consumed by people overseas.
There are, of course, many who have benefitted from the increase in demand for Quinoa. The farmers who have been growing it for generations have brought prosperity and development to their communities. They are able to use the extra money for tractors and other farming equipment that they have never been able to afford. They can expand their homes and improve their children’s prospects by paying for schools and university.
So, where do we stand as Western consumers? These days we are far more aware of where our food comes from and our impact on the world – we know about the benefits of organic and free-range products, and are even aware of a food air-miles. But with more knowledge comes more responsibility. We have to accept the consequences of the foods we buy, and many people and companies already do – choosing sustainable fish is an example closer to home. But quinoa is also one of those foods – it is not only the natives of Peru and Bolivia that are struggling to keep up with the change of demand and increasing prices, but also the land it’s grown on. As prices rise, farmers are in a rush to provide quinoa to those who demand it and are cutting corners, abandoning traditional farming techniques and damaging the soil and its fertility.
So what can we do? It may seem insignificant, but just be more aware of how much quinoa you consume, and whether it has come from a sustainable source. There are many other grains and pulses that carry flavours as well as quinoa does and are equally healthy. Brown rice, pearl barley, bulgar wheat and wholewheat couscous are all great substitutes. Remember, we have many incredible and healthy ingredients that most of those from Peru and Bolivia do not have. So if we can help lower the price of quinoa and encourage sustainable production we’d be helping those who really need it. So always read the label and make the informed choice – I’d rather not have the health, happiness and lives of others on my conscience just because I like quinoa, simples.