The Dark Truth About Quinoa

Quinoa has become the brain child of the health market, with people talking about all of the nutritional and health benefits for those who want carbs without all of the nasty parts. If you’re low carb or otherwise you want to be a health nut, then quinoa is for you, right? It has even hit the gluten free market as a sort of superfood.

According to Tanya Kerrsen, a Bolivia based researcher for Food First who studies quinoa though, asking about eating it or not is the wrong thing to ask.

She says, The debate has largely been reduced to the invisible hand of the marketplace, in which the only options for shaping our global food system are driven by (affluent) consumers either buying more or buying less…whichever way you press the lever there are bound to be negative consequences, particularly for poor farmers in the Global South.

So forget about your expensive health food store or the grocery store brand that claims to be just as good. Go down to the Bolivian Altiplano. The Quechua (modern day Inca) and Aymara (people who were here before the Inca) still live in this area, where they first domesticated quinoa, potatoes, and other crops such as oca, arracacha, kanawa, isano, and more names that it’s perfectly acceptable not to know.

There are warm days and cold nights in this area, and the altitude ranges from 10,000 feet up. You can find plenty of different crops here from the exotic to the familiar. However, you won’t find many llamas, despite the fact that they were actually domesticated there. When you go further south, it gets colder and drier. You start seeing more llamas and alpacas instead of cows and sheep, and you see more shrubs and grasses.

In this area, there are not many things that will grow. However, they found that Quinoa was particularly well suited to areas with high climatic risk such as the southern Altiplano-able to withstand levels of drought, salinity, wind, hail, and frost in which other crops would perish.

The Spanish invaded this area when they found silver in 1545, and they enslaved much of the local population. Many died in this way. The Spanish set up haciendas to produce food and wealth for the white landowners of course, and even after the Bolivian independence, these stayed in place until the Bolivian revolution in 1952. Quinoa stayed largely outside of this hacienda type market due to it growing largely in areas that did not provide good climates for farming.

In short, for centuries, the white community has either ignored or exploited Bolivians. Since then, there have been developments. They have introduced things like tractors to help with farming, and the US has provided quite a bit of support for Bolivia in recent years. However, tractors actually don’t operate well on hillsides where you typically find quinoa, which is a game changer for the market. In addition, tractors are worse for the soil’s fertility than the primitive alternatives.

Of course, there are good and bad things about tractors, and it’s something to consider, especially in such fragile environments such as those used to grow quinoa. The more quinoa grows in popularity, the more push there is to develop this and use methods that aren’t necessarily good for the environment there.

Quinoa first hit the US in 1984. At that time, quinoa was processed manually, and the end product could be bitter if the bitter coat of saponins wasn’t removed. Finding small rocks in your quinoa was not at all uncommon back then. At this point, there was a cooperative who looked for external support. They wanted to build their own quinoa equipment, and in 1990, the UN stepped in. They tried to build processing plants, and in 2005, the US and Denmark looked to help create new technologies.

Quinoa took off, and Bolivian farmers, who were previously paid $500 per metric ton were suddenly paid $800 in 2008 to over $1300 in 2010.

Those who are worried about quinoa who find that the longer this goes on, the more it will change the crop. Plants will become smaller and stunted with not much grain. The soil will change to look like sand, and then the nutritional benefits will of course lessen.

Those who have moved to the cities in some cases are moving back in order to grow quinoa on their families’ lands, creating social changes. When they come back, they do not go back to the old ways of living. They bring city attitudes and habits back with them.

Of course, in the US, it ultimately comes down to either the quinoa boom is amazing and it’s lifting people out of poverty or the quinoa boom is terrible and it’s destroying people’s lives. In both of those types of conversations, it ignores the native people who actually produce it.

So should we buy quinoa or not? That shouldn’t be the question or the major concern. That’s not the point. It relies on the idea that we just need to blindly depend on marketing forces when really the struggle for food sovereignty and the right of farmers goes so far beyond that. It goes to the regulation of trade and the regulation of the food supply and education in Bolivia, around the native crops.


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