Sunday, January 20, 2013

Quinoa Crazy–When Our Hunger for Health Taxes South American Farmers

Sometime in the late 90's when my mother was still buying most of my groceries, a curious new carbohydrate snuck into the household palate. Quinoa ("keen-wa") was all the rage. Here in the U.S., it became a culinary mainstay at Buddhist retreats. The Skinny Bitches promoted it. The Quinoa Diet lauds it for its low glycemic content. Did I mention it's gluten-free? Move over brown rice. Hello round, slightly crispy miracle vegetable-grain, a relative of beets and chard, first cultivated by the Incas hundreds of years ago.

Vegetarians love it for its high protein content (14% to 18%) and hard-to-find amino acids. As a three-quarters vegetarian myself, I certainly support trying to get vitamins through food, rather than in pill form. But, quinoa can't help me here. It's not on my shelves right now.

After what I learned today, I'm glad I haven't been eating the stuff. Much of what's on supermarket shelves comes from Bolivia and Peru, countries whose farmers are on a hamster wheel of Western demand. It's a terrible irony: South American harvesters can't afford to eat something that used to be integral to their diets so they've turned to our fast food for sustenance. Enter one of the downfalls of free North-South trade. According to Alternet, in Lima, Peru, a chicken is cheaper than quinoa, which has tripled in price since 2006.

This food, which seems to flow freely in U.S. and European markets, isn't the only strain on South American agriculture. In Peru, the asparagus capital of the world, some farmers have abandoned their water hungry crop all together. Though I've read that a group of non-profits is devising water standards that will serve as fair trade measures, I haven't seen any related details.

Around the time I started eating quinoa, I began to hear the phrase, "Think Globally, Act Locally." Since American farmers are now hip to the crop–it grows in places like Colorado and Oregon–I put a call into my local Whole Foods to see if they carried a brand I'd feel comfortable eating. The clerk thought for sure he did, and put me on hold to examine the package of TruRoots organic quinoa. "It's from Livermore, California, but certified organic in Oregon," he said. That could work! I rushed to the Tru Roots website only to read that "TruRoots Organic Quinoa supports the livelihood of small family farms in the Andean plains." 

Hopefully, sometime in 2013, the Year of the Quinoa, I'll find a farmer's market where the grain is cheap and home grown. And as I sit down to dinner, I'll thank tillers everywhere.

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