The International Year of Quinoa: UN has dedicated 2013 to the year of the ‘superfood’, but has its meteoric rise done more harm than good?

Over the last six years global consumption of the grain quinoa has soared. Dieticians, nutritionists, vegans and other ethical food warriors have hoarded the grain due to it ticking a number of boxes.

Quinoa is low in fat and is an ideal option to satisfy the government’s helpful advice to “base your meals on starchy foods”. It is a perfect substitute for meat and is therefore worshipped by vegans – its abnormally high protein content making it the sirloin steak alternative of the non meat-eating world.

Not only does quinoa contain a higher-than-average 14%-18% protein content for grains, but it also has vital amino acids that allows vegetarians to avoid those unnatural food supplements. Its high iron count makes it a good cure for anemia and it is also high in calcium and phosphorus and the absence of gluten ticks yet another box for those intolerant to gluten.

Such is quinoa’s angelic qualities that the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organisation praised it as “the only plant food that contains all the essential amino acids, trace elements and vitamins and contains no gluten.”

Quinoa also satisfies the more ethically-minded food consumers on the planet – those of us who seek a more environmentally sustainable, more affordable and more equitable distribution of food in the world. For this reason the United Nations General Assembly declared 2013 as ‘The Year of Quinoa’ – in an attempt to attract the world’s attention to the role of quinoa in providing food security and poverty reduction and thereby accomplishing Millenium Development Goals.

But although it may continue to tick food nutrition boxes, its god-like status it has acquired as a global poverty-busting superpower is short-sighted and potentially hypocritically harmful. Its inexorable rise in demand, particularly across luxury food consuming Europe, Britain and the United States, has rocketed up the price of quinoa – making the grain increasingly less affordable and consequently damaging its role of curing global food poverty.

Since 2006 quinoa crop prices have tripled. In 2011, the average crop value was $3,115 per ton, but some varieties were selling as high as $8,000 per ton. Considering wheat prices were priced at about $340 per ton, quinoa was an extremely lucrative enterprise for farmers in quinoa-friendly climates, most notably South America. Such is the rise in its price, quinoa is now more expensive per pound than chicken in Lima, and four times as expensive as rice.

On the surface this has been great news for farmers in underdeveloped countries. As the Guardian reported earlier this year, the quinoa crop “has become a lifeline for the people of Bolivia’s Oruro and Potosi regions, among the poorest in what is one of South America’s poorest nations.”

Unlike other food produce that is grown throughout the third world and guzzled by the first, such as coffee and coca which are largely grown by monopoly plantations owned by the rich, quinoa is farmed largely by smallholders across the Andean highlands, a region covering parts of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. Its saintly position as a nutritional, poverty-busting, world inequality-shattering commodity could hardly have risen any further.

But demand has risen so high that other crops are being sacrificed so farmers can grow even more of the world’s most popular grain. Land is becoming a scarcer resource and is endangering soil fertility. So much so, in fact, that Time magazine warned of a soil crisis:

“Traditionally, quinoa fields covered 10% of this fragile ecosystem, llamas grazed on the rest. Now, llamas are being sold to make room for crops, provoking a soil crisis.”

Growing quinoa has become so profitabile, that other crops and even animals are being sacrificed to make room. This is inevitable when a local staple food becomes a global commodity, says Tanya Kerssen, an analyst from the American organisation Food First.

“When you transform a food into a commodity, there’s inevitable breakdown in social relations and high environmental cost”, she said.

So the expanding space used for growing quinoa is not only damaging the quality of soil across the poor Andean region, but it is also now taking the place of other produce, which is now cheaper as it has now become more important to natives’ diets as they replace it for the less affordable quinoa.  But it is becoming scarcer too, leading to a greater risk of a food crisis in the region, and hugely damaging their previously sound food security as the region becomes increasingly dependent on imports. As the lives and consciences in the West become so reliant on third world produce, so too does their diets become dependent on the West’s unnatural food supply as a consequence.

The price of quinoa has become so high that native Andeans can no longer afford to eat quinoa, including the farmers themselves. And for the growers who can afford to buy the luxury grain due to the huge spike in demand, quinoa has become too valuable to consume in their daily diets as eating it detracts from the profits they could otherwise be making by selling it. They have swapped quinoa for the much cheaper alternatives of pasta and rice.

The grain, which has been part of the Andean people’s diet for the last 7,000 years and was considered sacred by the Inca Empire, has been driven from their plates by the greed of the Western World and the short-sighted, vegan do-gooders. While we in the west satisfy our health and our conscience by stuffing ourselves with quinoa, in doing so we have imposed our junk of a diet onto those who previously enjoyed a naturally healthy diet.

We might know how to produce the cheapest food, but they know how to grow the healthiest. Swapping quinoa for KFC somehow does not seem like a fair deal, but the vegans, vegetarians and eco-warriors will continue telling the myth that eating third world grains will save the world.

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