Save the Quinoa (But Not From Vegans)

The controversy over quinoa—the South American grain gaining popularity in America—has been going on for some time. The issue is outwardly simple: fetching a higher price when exported to countries like the U.S., indigenous cultures are no longer able to afford to buy this staple part of their diet. But that’s not the whole story.

A recent article on the quinoa issue appearing in The Guardian (“Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?”) has gone viral. But the story isn’t new. The New York Times covered this problem back in 2011. Once a little known grain (biologically it’s a seed), quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is available primarily from Bolivia and Peru. The high protein and fiber-rich food recently became a popular alternative in the gluten-free and health food segments in the U.S., Canada and Europe. At first, Bolivians embraced the opportunity, according to Simon Romero for the Times, “The surge has helped raise farmers’ incomes here in one of the hemisphere’s poorest countries.” But there has been a notable trade-off, says Romero, “fewer Bolivians can now afford it, hastening their embrace of cheaper, processed foods and raising fears of malnutrition in a country that has long struggled with it.” Prices of quinoa have skyrocketed in Bolivia, according to Romero “a 1,000-gram bag of quinoa, just over two pounds, costs the equivalent of $4.85, compared with $1.20 for a bag of noodles the same weight and $1 for a bag of white rice.”

But the heart of this issue isn’t an American love for the exotic or voracious vegans; it’s our failure to support American farmers. While we keep most of the heartland tied up producing genetically modified corn and soy, diverse crops like quinoa could thrive in parts of the country (a close relative to spinach and beets, certain climates could cultivate quinoa). But why pay the price for something grown here when we can import it cheaper from a struggling nation? Americans spend less of their income on food than any other country in the world (about 6 percent). Many see it as good accounting, but it comes at the cost of our own farmers, doing their best to stay in business. Subsidies come in for growing crops like corn for ethanol, and it’s not a tough choice to grow fuel instead of food when you’re family farm is facing foreclosure.

While the organic and healthy food sectors do continue to grow, so does the industrialization of organics. According to the Organic Trade Association, “certified organic cropland acreage between 2002 and 2008 averaged 15 percent annual growth.” With more organic processed food driving the category, less attention is given to quality, all so that prices can decrease at the consumer level (Walmart sells more organic food than any other business in the country). And if we can’t grow it here at the right price, we import it.

According to the Guardian, the issue is “beginning to look like a cautionary tale of how a focus on exporting premium foods can damage the producer country’s food security.” We know this leads to a host of problems—not just with food security, but environmental security, too. (Just look at the devastation caused by soy farming in Brazil, or palm harvesting in Indonesia.) To blame consumers wanting to choose healthy plant foods at a time when processed meat and dairy products are intrinsically connected to our national massive obesity epidemic is a failure to see the big picture: corporations run our food system. They fund the destruction of resources and instigate crises affecting virtually every food-producing nation on earth. They do this to get food cheaper so they can sell more of it. Of course, it happens right here on U.S. soil, too. So do widespread cases of human slavery and abuse in the name of cheap “healthy” foods. (If you haven’t yet, you simply must read Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.)

While U.S. consumers can opt for Fair Trade quinoa from Bolivia, or choose other options altogether, we still need to demand better support for American farmers. We need to justify spending a bit more for locally produced food and create new food systems that work for everyone, in every country.

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

Image: Fran Ulloa