Ethical consumers need to be aware that poor Bolivians can no longer afford to grow grain due to rising demand for quinoa in the west. On the other hand, quinoa may harm Bolivian farmers, but eating meat harms us all.
Not so long ago, quinoa was just an unknown Peruvian product that could only be bought in specialized stores. Quinoa has been favorably received by nutritionists due to its low fat content and richness in amino acids. Gourmets liked its bitter taste and exotic appearance.
Vegans have recognized quinoa as an excellent meat substitute. Quinoa is high in protein (14%-18%), as well as those pesky but essential amino acids essential for good health that can be elusive for vegetarians who choose not to consume nutritional supplements.
Sales skyrocketed. Consequently, the price has jumped three times since 2006, new varieties have appeared – black, red and royal.
But there is an uncomfortable truth for those of us who keep a bag of quinoa in the pantry. The popularity of quinoa in countries like the US has driven prices up to the point where poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom quinoa was a staple, can no longer afford to eat it. Imported junk food is cheaper. In Lima, quinoa is now more expensive than chicken. Outside the cities, the land was once used to grow a variety of crops, but due to overseas demand, quinoa has supplanted everything else and has become a monoculture.
In fact, the quinoa trade is another troubling example of increasing poverty. This is starting to look like a cautionary tale about how export orientation can hurt a country’s food security. A similar story accompanied the entry into the world market of asparagus.
Result? In the arid region of Ica, home to the production of Peruvian asparagus, exports have depleted the water resources on which the locals depend. Workers work hard for pennies and can’t feed their children, while exporters and foreign supermarkets cash in on the profits. Such is the pedigree of the appearance of all these clumps of useful substances on the shelves of supermarkets.
Soy, a favorite vegan product that is being lobbied as a dairy alternative, is another factor that is causing environmental destruction.
Soybean production is currently one of the two main causes of deforestation in South America, with livestock rearing being the other. Vast expanses of forests and grasslands have been cleared to accommodate huge soybean plantations. To clarify: 97% of the soybean produced, according to a 2006 UN report, is used to feed animals.
Three years ago, in Europe, for the sake of experiment, they sowed quinoa. The experiment failed and was not repeated. But the attempt, at least, is the recognition of the need to improve our own food security by reducing dependence on imported products. It is preferable to eat local products. Through the lens of food security, Americans’ current obsession with quinoa looks increasingly irrelevant.