Hot Topics

Quinoa: "Miracle" Grain Raises Ethical Questions


By Christopher Coyne

A few years ago, most of us had never heard of quinoa, and even if we saw the word in print, we probably had no idea what it meant, or how to pronounce it. For the record, it's pronounced ‘keen-wa', and it's a grain product grown primarily in the Andean region of South American, specifically in Columbia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. In recent years, quinoa has become a very popular option for vegetarians, vegans and those who are looking for healthy alternatives to other grains in their diet. Quinoa is especially attractive to vegans because of its unusually high protein content compared to other grains. It also contains good levels of some essential amino acids, calcium and iron.

Quinoa has been a staple food of the indigenous peoples of the Andean region for thousands of years. It's been a vital product in the subsistence of poor small farmers for generations. But that's all changing. Since the explosion in popularity of quinoa over the last decade, those farmers have struggled to keep up with demand for the grain in wealthier countries to the North and West. And as demand increased, supply diminished-and of course prices for the once quite affordable grain went up dramatically.

Since 2006, the price of South American quinoa has nearly tripled. That's good news for the bigger farmers and distributors, but maybe not the best news for the poorer people of the region. Those who once relied on quinoa as a cheap, nourishing staple food may no longer be able to afford it. There is also another worrying effect of the quinoa boom; food security. With demand so high, more farmers are getting into the quinoa trade, and there is less diversity of crops grown in the region. This monoculture of growing can make it harder for people to find affordable healthy foods. So the very product that is bringing new-found wealth to the region may ultimately adversely affect the health of its population.

That doesn't mean hope is lost, and we should swear off quinoa forever. When you're shopping for the versatile grain, look for companies that are Fair Trade certified. If that's not available at least choose organic quinoa as organic farming means less harmful chemicals and a safer process for the farmer. There is also evidence that, in some regions, the quinoa boom has been good for small indigenous farmers. With their increased incomes they are able to add more healthy foods to their diets such as tomatoes and fresh vegetables. Next time you're at the grocery store, its okay to choose quinoa-just choose responsibly.