Quinoa: a foodie’s dilemma

Stephanie Eisner

You may never have heard the backstory of quinoa, but you’ve probably tasted the newly popular grain. Especially in Austin, it’s hard to go to a vegetarian restaurant or health food cafe without spotting it on the menu or tasting its bitter flavor in a salad. The tiny chenopod (think spinach and beets, not wheat) has recently become the new poster child for the international debate about the ethics of importing health foods from underdeveloped countries to satisfy the fine cravings of those of us in the West. If that sounds unappetizing, beware. The story, just like any complete meal, comes with more than one side.

Quinoa is a low-fat, high-protein, starchy vegetable loved for its amino acids and potential as a viable meat substitute. It’s native to the Andean region of South America that includes Peru, Bolivia, Colombia and Ecuador. The ancient Incas considered the crop sacred, and the United Nations followed suit in its declaration of 2013 as the “Year of the Quinoa.” Just two semesters ago, Jon Kelter Gehrig, a geography graduate student at UT, completed a thesis on “development and livelihood changes in the high Andes” as a result of quinoa production.

One of the main arguments against quinoa consumption is a nutritional one. As quinoa has become increasingly celebrated and well-known in the West, demand for it has grown and prices have risen. Farmers found that they could fetch a higher price from the crop than ever before and began to sell it for export rather than consuming it themselves. Gehrig writes that during his two-month stay in Bolivia, he only ate quinoa five times. Tom Philpott of Mother Jones magazine suggests that newly wealthy quinoa farmers now can afford to steer away from subsistence farming and eat food other than quinoa. As a result, Andean quinoa farmers are eating less of their own nutritious food as families in the West demand and consume more of it, leading to unprecedented malnutrition in quinoa-producing communities.

Those in support of Western quinoa consumption see the nutritional trade-off, but believe it to be irrelevant.  With the higher salaries farmers earn from their now more valuable product, farmers of quinoa can afford to purchase goods previously unavailable to them. Edouard Rollet, co-founder of Alter Eco, a company that facilitates bulk imports of quinoa to Western consumers, says that since his company partnered with a Bolivian group in the southern Altiplano, it has seen that the community’s resulting economic growth has allowed families to settle seasonally in more populated areas. That economic growth also improves their housing and living conditions. The increase in revenue has also allowed families to diversify their diet, which Alter Eco espouses as a positive development for overall nutrition.

These two points of view are just a taste of the ethical discussion surrounding quinoa, which encompasses more academic fields than there are Bolivian fields of the crop. Some believe that growing demand for quinoa has decreased crop diversification, decreased soil fertility and increased strain on natural water sources. Others show that rivalry for unclaimed or neutral land where quinoa could be grown in the Andes has produced unprecedented violence between the Andean people. As Gehrig puts it, “Money does create power, but it also has a tendency to disrupt the natural balance of community.” Even the high price quinoa can fetch may not actually win farmers more overall profit because they require more costly capital investment, such as modern farming equipment.

In the future, keep quinoa in mind. Think about where you spend your money, and realize that even your smallest choices can have more of an effect than you think. And if you go to Kerbey Lane, remember that not all food-related decisions are complicated. Order the queso. Every time.

Eisner is a public health sophomore from Houston.