I love quinoa. Long before I went gluten-free, back in the days when I had no idea how to pronounce “keen-wa”, I was learning how to cook the tiny seed and teaching you how to love it too. In fact, when I put the word “quinoa” in the Inspired RD search box, 28 posts came up! Over the past few months however, more and more has come out about the ethical considerations surrounding this super food. As I sat there eating my quinoa salad, I wondered about the people who grow it, and the communities who are impacted by the increase in quinoa exports. Am I, a quinoa lover and quinoa promoter, hurting people halfway across the world? Should I stop eating it? I needed some answers, so I turned to someone I knew would have them. My friend Andy Bellatti is a dietitian who is passionate about food politics and social justice in our food system. Here’s what he uncovered about the ethics surrounding quinoa.
Much like kale, quinoa has been the food movement’s darling for several years. High in fiber, protein, and minerals (and gluten-free, to boot) this pseudograin – it’s technically a seed – has moved beyond side dish territory and made into pasta, flour, and even milk. But, is its nutrition A-list status clouded by questionable ethics? Below, a summary of what you need to know about recent reports that there may be reasons to not be so keen on quinoa.
So, what is this I hear about quinoa being unethical?
Quinoa, which just ten years ago was a niche food for health nuts (what some refer to as “hippie food”), has gone mainstream.
As we know from good-old “supply and demand”, this means quinoa farmers – most of whom live in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador – can now charge a lot more for this crop than in years past. This also, however, means that since quinoa exports are so lucrative, most farmers prefer to sell the nutrient-dense pseudograin than eat it themselves. Meanwhile, individuals of low socio-economic income in these countries who once easily afforded quinoa – their staple food – have now been priced out. What’s replacing quinoa? Refined grains and sugars, mostly.
As this Time Magazine article explains, the quinoa boom has had other troubling consequences:
“Territorial bickering is spreading. “Every week, I visit two or three communities with land disputes related to quinoa,” says Nina, a mallku (traditional indigenous authority). Many families don’t have land titles, he explains — they weren’t needed when the ample arid soil was communal herding ground. Also, quinoa’s high sale price is prompting a reverse migration of those who had long ago abandoned the Altiplano, triggering property disagreements.”
But, before you boycott quinoa, consider the account of this documentarian currently investigating quinoa production in South America:
“As farmers become more well off, their eating habits become diversified as they can afford to eat other foods. They choose to eat paste or rice because of its increased availability and, to them, because of its novelty. In Bolivia, the social stigma is that quinoa is still a poor person’s food, not a Whole Foods hot commodity. As they gain more wealth, they look to eat the foods of those who they perceive as having a higher social standing.”
How did this happen?
It was inevitable, really, once quinoa made it to the big leagues. As demand grew, prices rose. Again, though, higher quinoa prices is only one part of this puzzle. The other is more of an interesting sociological phenomenon of what happens to cultural eating patterns once trade — and expendable income — increases, especially in regards to nutritious staples that start to be seen as “peasant food”. Remember, hundreds of years ago, white bread consumption in Europe skyrocketed when it became a status symbol (royalty ate white bread; peasants ate dark, coarse whole grain breads).
What about fair trade? Does that mean my quinoa is more ethical?
Most quinoa is fair trade in the sense that farmers are paid fair prices for its production. The specifics around quinoa’s murky ethics are not about unfair pricing, but rather that due to its rising prices, many native Bolivians, Peruvians, and Ecuadorians have been priced out.
Should I stop buying quinoa from South America?
Not so fast. As the documentarian referenced above explains:
“The overwhelming evidence suggests that as demand for quinoa increases, Bolivians growing quinoa is providing a viable way of working themselves out of poverty.”
That said, if you are looking for domestic quinoa, it grows in Colorado and can be purchased from White Mountain Farm.
Although concerns about the ethics of eating quinoa first appeared in 2011, this month saw a recent uptick in coverage. There are certainly some problematic consequences to the quinoa boom, but as on-the-ground reports point out, the situation is not quite as dire as some media sources have made it out to be.
Keep in mind, too, that it very likely that, over the next few years, the quinoa market will sort itself out as the quinoa furor decreases and other countries start to grow the crop (which is renowned for its ability to flourish in pretty dire soil and climate conditions).
So, what’s the takeaway?
I believe Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott is quite on target:
“Like every other globally traded commodity foodstuff, quinoa is devilishly complicated and prone to tragedy. For now, I’ll keep eating it in moderation, but I won’t take it for granted. Or stop trying to learn more about it—and neither should any of it eaters, vegan or not.”
P.S.: If you are interested in pressing ethical issues that concern other foods, I cover them in this post I wrote over at Eating Rules.
Andy Bellatti, MS, RD is a Las Vegas-based nutritionist with a plant-centric and whole-food focus. His work has been published in Grist, The Huffington Post, Today’s Dietitian, Food Safety News, and Civil Eats, among others. He is just as passionate about healthful eating as he is about food politics, deceptive Big Food marketing, and issues of sustainability, animal welfare, and social justice in our food system. He is the creator of the Small Bites blog (which, though now closed, has almost 2,000 archived posts). You can also follow Andy on Twitter and Facebook.