Friday, January 18, 2013

Is Quinoa Mean(oa)?: A Slightly Deeper Look

Yesterday, my Colombian friend Victoria sent me a link to the article by Joanna Blytheman that’s been causing somewhat of an uproar among quinoa lovers: Can Vegans Stomach the Unpalatable Truth About Quinoa? Before I even clicked on the link, it struck me as strange that the author would call out vegans, when many non-vegans also consume quinoa on a daily basis. As a former vegan with a particularly weak stomach, I was curious to see if I could handle the “unpalatable truth.”
By the end of the article – in addition to having had to look up the definition of “larder” (I had assumed it meant “one who consumes lard,” so I was surprised to discover that it is just a fancy word for “pantry”) – I was feeling distinctly bougie and ashamed.

Blytheman makes the point that the recent obsession with quinoa among affluent people living in developed countries has driven up its price in the developing countries where it is produced (Bolivia and Peru), so that the people in those countries can no longer afford to eat it.

Her problem with British vegans is that while Britain provides omnivores with locally produced meat and dairy products, “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.” Sorry, British Vegans, that you have chosen to live in a country whose land cannot produce fruits and vegetables (and whose journalists use words like “larder”).

But if Blytheman’s point was as simple as she made it seem, then quinoa-loving Americans were not off the hook. A rummage through my larder would produce the 4-lb. bag of Nature’s Earthly Choice quinoa I bought at Costco last week. Now, I realize that we Americans are pretty solidly stuck on the hook for countless wrongs against people living in developing countries. But I just couldn’t stomach adding quinoa consumption to the long list of transgressions.

So I decided to poke around for some second opinions. After about three minutes’ worth of Google searches extensive research, I found evidence that the quinoa issue was more complicated than Blytheman made it out to be.

Just two days before Blytheman’s article appeared in The Guardian, an article by Dan Collyns entitled Quinoa Brings Riches to the Andes was published… in The Guardian.

First of all, I have to admit that I suspect I am not part of Collyns’s target audience, since in order to convey the benefits of Royal quinoa, which only grows in southern Bolivia and is particularly rich in protein, he makes the following comparison: “Royal quinoa is to the grain what beluga is to caviar.”

Oh, naturally. A quick rummage in my larder would reveal that all my caviar is of the beluga variety. I mean, really.

His assumption of his readers’ familiarity with caviar aside, Collyns’s article does not immediately contradict Blytheman’s; he makes the similar point that “global demand means less quinoa is being eaten in Bolivia and Peru,” which “could cause malnutrition [in] producers, who have long relied on the superfood to supplement their meagre diets.”

But Collyns goes on to quote Paola Mejia, agronomist and general manager of Bolivia’s Chamber of Quinoa Real and Organic Product Exporters, as saying of quinoa farmers: “They have westernized their diets because they have more profits and more income… Ten years ago they had only an Andean diet in front of them. They had no choice. But now they do and they want rice, noodles, candies, coke, they want everything!”

And in Peru, a new government campaign has drastically reduced chronic malnutrition in children under five. This progress seems to be a result of the nearly $35 million Peru earned from quinoa exports in 2012; similarly, quinoa exports have boosted Bolivia’s economy by $85 million, according to Victor Hugo Vásquez, Bolivia's vice-minister for rural development and agriculture.

The governments of both countries have also launched campaigns to promote national consumption of quinoa as part of a healthy diet. So it could be argued that the rising price of quinoa is benefiting the citizens of the countries where it is produced, as their governments use their increased funds to combat malnutrition.

Clearly, as these two articles appearing in the same publication two days apart demonstrate, the issues surrounding quinoa’s popularity are quite complicated, and the consequences for the people of Bolivia and Peru are mixed.

One way to avoid feeling guilty about your quinoa addiction is to get your fix from within the United States. The only place I can find that produces quinoa is White Mountain Farm in Colorado, but I’m sure there are other sources.

Given all the unseen damage caused by the lifestyle we take for granted (and by “we” I mean affluent citizens of developed countries, British vegans included), the concentration of concern around quinoa seems misguided.

I’m going to make some quinoa for lunch right now, and while I eat it I will contemplate where and by whom my clothes were made, how my car runs, what “fair trade” actually implies, the morality of the myriad of companies in which Vanguard has invested my money…

1 comment:

  1. Good points. I also saw this article this week from the NYT:

    And I actually read an article earlier in the fall about how there are almost no places in the US that grow quinoa and that place in CO is one of the only ones. I think they're hoping that other places will start growing it... Ah, here it is:

    The funny thing is that I don't even like quinoa...I just read the articles because John loves it lol.