Twenty years ago saw quinoa receive its first international praise: NASA researchers raved about its nutrient density, hailing it the perfect astronaut chow. Since then, quinoa has climbed its way up to full on superfood status. Indeed, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation declares it ‘the only plant food that contains all the essential amino acids, trace elements and vitamins and contains no gluten’. The UN’s enthusiasm for quinoa led to it naming 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa; this sought-after food even has a Facebook Fan page!
Nevertheless the booming success of quinoa is not a wholly innocent story. Whilst the grain has become a lifeline for many of the people who grow it, quinoa has become a valuable global commodity so much so that the people growing it in countries such as Bolivia cannot afford to eat it. Instead, farmers are selling quinoa to use the proceeds for cheaper, less-nutrient dense foods such as white rice. This impact on the diet of farmers (which is leading to an increased burden of non-communicable diseases in Latin America…a whole other discussion!) is coupled with land and environmental issues resulting from the increased cultivation of quinoa. As demand for the grain skyrockets, farmers are being pushed to prioritise quick mass production to the detriment of older, more traditional forms of sustainable agriculture.
So what can we do? Well, despite the soaring domestic prices of quinoa and the undoubtable environmental impacts, the answer is not to give up on this grain! Its boom has brought about huge profit for Bolivian farmers as well as boasting a nutritional status to make health fads swoon. So whilst there is no need to avoid it, we do need to be aware of the possible issues implicated by quinoa’s new ‘superfood’ status.