More Than Just a Hipster Fad



I first discovered quinoa (pronounced keen-wa, not qui-no-a as my mum originally called it) in the kitchen of a friend’s house. She had put a jar full of red, black and light brown seeds on the bench top and we were all trying to figure out the best way to cook it. Since then I have seen so many cook books, cooking blogs and Pinterest boards dedicated to quinoa alone; it’s a wonder we ever struggled.

Quinoa is a grain that has become increasingly popular around the world, particularly in the last two years. It might be the slightly nutty flavour, the diversity of its uses, or the fun way it pops in your mouth as you eat it, but articles generally lend its popularity to its incredible health properties. Health benefits aside, quinoa’s popularity is a topic wrapped up in contentious economic, environmental and social matters.

Since 2006 quinoa has risen three-fold in price, and in 2011 it averaged USD$3,115 per tonne, boosting the struggling economies that export quinoa, particularly Bolivia and Peru. In 2012 Peru tripled its revenue from quinoa exportation, gaining almost $35m, while Bolivia’s exports provided an income of approximately $85m. The United Nations recognised the potential for quinoa to assist in lifting communities out of poverty, and so declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa. At the official launch UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon named quinoa “a key plank of the Zero Hunger Challenge.” The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation Director-General, José Graziano da Silva, further stated that: “Quinoa can play an important role in eradicating hunger, malnutrition and poverty.” However, the rising price fetched by quinoa has meant that farmers are more inclined to sell the grain than eat it themselves. They are instead turning to cheap and easily accessible Westernised fast food, which is negatively impacting their health. The grain, which was previously the food for cattle, has become too valuable even for the farmers’ consumption.

Dietary impacts are not the only concerns associated with the rise of quinoa. With greater demand, there have been violent disputes over the relevant arable plots. February 2012 saw dozens of people injured during particularly nasty battles over previously ignored land. Higher demand also means that farmers have abandoned traditional techniques in favour of faster, but less sustainable, methods. By using manufactured fertilisers, rather than the traditional llama fertiliser, the soil is being leached of nutrients. Furthermore where previously the soil would be rested between harvests, more land is now being used continually, leading to greater desertification. While this is having little impact currently, there will be far greater long-term environmental damage. The supply-and-demand struggle is being met by other countries who have jumped on the quinoa money-making scheme such as Chile, Canada, and the USA. While this may reduce the environmental strain on Bolivia and Peru, it also reduces their flow of income.

The Guardian recently published a controversial article titled, ‘Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?’, which seems to be the main point of discussion across quinoa-related twitter and blogs. The repartee bounces back and forth between defending vegans and quinoa consumption, and examining the significant negative impacts its recent popularity has had (adding that it’s not only vegans who eat it). There seems to be no clear, overarching conclusion either way. Nevertheless, these conversations do point to the importance of globalisation in today’s world. That I could sit on a stool at a friend’s bench top and eat an ancient pre-Incan grain, and have it affect the health of a family in Bolivia, or the soil in the Andes is something worth thinking about. It reminds me that I’m not just a UTS student in the Sydney bubble, but rather, that I’m part of a global network of people where each choice really does have a worldwide impact.


Featured image via Wikimedia Commons