Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Quinoa: Should we eat it?

We were hiking  in Peru last year when our guide stopped and pointed to a field of golden flowering quinoa plants on long stalks.It was a special experience seeing this ancient grain, one of the world's most nutritious plants.He told us that Quinoa( pronounced as  keen-wa) is very healthy but as it is expensive so they don't eat it very often at his house.

."We like it as well, but it's not cheap at home either, so for us also its an occasional treat." I told him.

I  gave no more thought to our conversation until I read a recent article in the Guardian " Can Vegans Stomach the Unpalatable Truth about Quinoa." by Joanna Blythman. She made the accusation that ethical consumers should be aware that poor Bolivians can no longer afford their staple grain, due to western demand raising prices. She wrote:

"But there is an unpalatable truth to face for those of us with a bag of quinoa in the larder. The appetite of countries such as ours for this grain has pushed up the prices to such an extent that poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom it was once a nourishing staple food, can no longer afford to eat it. Imported junk food is cheaper. In Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken. Outside the cities, and fuelled by overseas demand, the pressure is on to turn land that once produced a portfolio of diverse crops into quinoa monoculture."

" Global demand means less quinoa is being eaten in Bolivia and Peru, the countries of origin, as the price has tripled. There are concerns this could cause malnutrition as producers, who have long relied on the superfood to supplement their meagre diets, would rather sell their entire crop than eat it. The rocketing international price is also creating land disputes."

Her comments sent shockwaves across the Internet and sparked many a conversations on Twitter and Facebook.
I think that she not only pointed the finger unfairly at vegans (as many non vegans like me also enjoy quinoa) but also misrepresented the situation.

The high prices may well have lifted quite a few families above the poverty line. And if Westen consumers stopped buying quinoa there could be an adverse effect on the standard of living of quinoa farming families.

Some have also commented that many quinoa farmers are now able to afford a different kind of diet and are now choosing a more Western and less nutritious diet : rice, noodles, candies and coke.

And although the price of quinoa is high the growing middle classes are still consuming  sizeable quantities of quinoa -based products such as pizza crusts, hamburgers and breakfast cereals.

But as the price has tripled in recent years Quinoa has become unaffordable for many people. However I don't think that the answer is  for us to stop eating it or to eat less of it. I'm not an expert in economics but it would seem that a more positive solution would be for their governments to both encourage exports but also to put systems in place to sell quinoa at a lower and more affordable price locally.

I don't plan to stop eating quinoa occasionally but I would very much like to find a brand which is Fair Trade so that I could be sure that the farmer who grew it gets a fair return for their labour.

This whole debate has made me think again how we are all part of a global village. Although  the chronic malnutrition which is stil prevalent in poorer Andean Countries may not be attributable to us eating quinoa we should  care about where the food on our plates come from, who produced it and whether exporting it overseas is affecting their livelihood.

Below is the original guardian article that has sparked a great deal of discussion.
and since I wrote this a really good feature appeared in the Guardian, well worth reading


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