Does anyone actually know how to say quinoa?
Keen-o-ah? Kin-wah? Queen-oh-ah?
Quinoa (actually pronounced ‘keen-wah’, who knew?) is the new fashionable superfood. It’s wheat-free, supposedly slimming and Uncle Ben has even added it to his instant rice pouches – delicious. And get this, the UN actually named 2013 ‘International Quinoa Year’ in recognition of quinoa’s brilliance. Pretty impressive eh?
But what makes quinoa so great? Has anyone actually measured the health benefits, or are we all just jumping on the fashionable food bandwagon?
Grab your curly kale crisps and fancy flavoured popcorn because I’ve done some digging and I’ve got to say, the realities of quinoa production don’t impress me much.
The facts – as a food, quinoa is pretty good for you. It has twice the protein content of rice or barley, it’s a great source of calcium, magnesium and manganese and it contains good levels of several B vitamins. It contains all 9 essential amino-acids, making it a complete-protein source (great for all you gym bunnies who want to build muscle). Quinoa also contains trace nutrients, including flavonoids which are antioxidants and have many health benefits. Two flavonoids which have particularly high health benefits are kaempferol and quercetin – these molecules have supposedly shown anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, anti-cancer and anti-depressant effects in various animal studies.
A huge selling point is that quinoa is wheat-free, so it’s a great alternative grain for coeliacs, or people just jumping on the gluten-free lifestyle bandwagon (me included).
That’s not all, quinoa is also very versatile. When cooked, the seeds become fluffy but still have a slight crunch and subtle nutty flavour – throw it on a salad, mix it into your muesli or eat it as a side with your dinner, it works for every meal!
So what’s not to like? It’s healthy, you can eat it with everything and if you Instagram a photo of it, you’re guaranteed a lot of likes. To understand the problem we need to take it back a level, back to the origins of quinoa.
Quinoa originates from the Andes and was previously a staple crop for the local communities there. The low economic standing of the population meant that they did not have access to large quantities of food, but as quinoa is so high in nutritional content, little else was needed to support their dietary requirements.
However, since we develop a love for quinoa and created such a rapid demand for the crop, the price of quinoa has risen sharply. Since 2006, quinoa’s price has tripled. Initially, this benefited the small Bolivian producers as they gained more money and were able to invest in more farm equipment. However, as demand grew, small producers were squeezed out by the big farmers who ramped up production and grew quinoa on enormous scales. For these big producers, the growing price of quinoa helped boost their income but also drove down local consumption of the crop – it became far more beneficial to sell the crop than to eat it. Quinoa became a product that was too valuable to eat. Instead, farmers are consuming cheaper, less nutritional, westernized food, like white rice. Subsequently, the health of the population is in decline.
That isn’t all. Our demand for quinoa is so high, that land which once grew a diverse range of crops has now been cleared for quinoa plantations. We call this a monoculture – when only one species of crop is grown across large areas of land. Monocultures are very damaging to the environment as they only create one habitat for species to live in. This drastically reduces the amount of biodiversity and disrupts the way the ecosystem functions. For example, if you cut down a forest and grow just one species of flower instead, you’ve taken away the habitat for all the forest species – now the only species that can live there are those who like that single flower. There are still many animals, but from a very small range of species. This limits the ecosystem function which in turn, stops the ecosystem providing as many services for us.
Since quinoa monocultures have been created, the ecosystem in the Andes can no longer provide a stable growing environment for the crop. Traditionally, quinoa production covered just 10% of the land and llamas grazed on the rest. Now, llamas are being sold to make more room for quinoa. The issue is that llama guano (poo!) is the best fertilizer for maintaining quinoa fields, so farmers are now experiencing a soil crisis. You see the issue? Everything is linked, we can’t remove a piece of the puzzle or the whole picture will collapse.
The negative effects of monocultures and mass production are not only linked to quinoa, this is happening with most of our essential crops; it is the reason why small farmers struggle across the world.
“When you transform a food into a commodity, there’s inevitable breakdown in social relations and high environmental cost”, explains Tanya Kerssen, food-policy analyst for Food First.
It seems our well intentioned health goals are creating unfavourable conditions for local farmers and damaging our environment. Is it worth it, for a bit of extra protein?
Perhaps we should cut back a little – enjoy the benefits of quinoa, but be more mindful about where it comes from and how much we consume. Maybe opt for a side of chips every now and again, just to balance it out (all for the sake of the environment, of course).