Quinoa – Are We Bad for Loving It?

Quinoa is Highly Nutritious and Delicious and We Love It, But Should We Eat It?

Quinoa Farmers

I, along with hundreds of thousands of other discerning souls, discovered quinoa several years ago, and it was love at first bite.

Quinoa is a non-grain, gluten free, high fiber, high protein, alkaline, high in healthy fat. Quinoa seemed like the answer to our prayers, a yummy, adaptable and nourishing food that even diabetics could eat.

Quinoa Nutrition Data, 1 cup cooked quinoa, 185g: 222 cal, 39g carb, 4g fat, 8g protein, 5g fiber, iron 15% DV, good source Vit E, folate, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, estimated glycemic load 18

Savvy Vegetarian has developed many tasty quinoa recipes, showing the versatility of this not-quite-grain. And we feel that we’ve only begun to explore all the quinoa possibilities.

Sadly, quinoa has become very expensive, because the demand exceeds the supply.

For instance, Costco, the big discount chain, recently discontinued selling quinoa at many of its stores, because their supplier wasn’t able to give them the amounts they needed at the price they wanted to pay. That was a black day for quinoa lovers!

At our local natural food store, we pay close to $4 a pound now for quinoa – and that’s cheap (although not as cheap as Costco).

The reason for the scarcity is that most of the quinoa we eat is imported from South America, and grown at high altitudes in the Andes mountains by small indigenous farmers. They can only grow so much, because quinoa is kind of picky – it won’t grow just any old place.

That’s why quinoa growing hasn’t taken hold on a large scale in N. America. Although a small amount is being raised successfully in Saskatchewan by Northern Quinoa Corp., and in Colorado at White Mountain Farm, the growers are far from able to meet anything but local demand.

Quinoa also requires extensive processing after harvesting, to get rid of the saponin coating which makes quinoa taste soapy and bitter, and can cause allergic reactions in some people.

Almost all of the quinoa available in N. America has been processed like that, so it just needs a quick rinse, not 5 thorough rinses as it would otherwise need to get rid of the saponin.

There’s another more serious downside to quinoa, beside the scarcity and the cost, and many have questioned whether we should be eating it at all.

The good news is that indigenous S. American farmers are making lots of money from growing quinoa and selling it through farming co-ops to quinoa lovers in America and Europe, who can’t get enough of it, no matter the cost.

The bad news is that quinoa was a staple food in the rural S. American diet, because that was one of the few crops they could grow, and they couldn’t afford anything else. But because of the quinoa craze, they’re growing and selling all the quinoa they possibly can.

Some say that people in quinoa growing regions aren’t eating much quinoa anymore, because now they can afford to buy other foods – like meat, rice, and tasty processed foods that previously only affluent urban S. Americans could afford. Those who want to continue eating quinoa are finding it rather expensive.

From the reports I’ve read, quinoa wasn’t well known in the S. American countries where it is grown. The farmers who grew it ate it, along with other rural residents. Of course they thrived on it, but they had to do all the processing, and their quinoa was not pre-washed, so they had to do the time and labor intensive cleaning to lose the saponin.

As far as I can tell, the farmers and others in rural S. America eat quinoa if they choose and can afford it. The government of Bolivia has taken some steps to ensure local supply by setting up agricultural subsidies for quinoa growers to support local sales, and they’re encouraging people to eat quinoa. Of course a lot depends on how well policies like that are applied.

Laetitia Mailhes in her article ‘Global Trade Conundrum: The Case of Quinoa’, explores these issues at length and in much more depth than I do here.

To me, it’s not surprising that when the farmers got lots of money from selling quinoa, they went for a more varied, convenient diet – even if it wasn’t as nutritious. That’s a common scenario all over the world – right or wrong.

As Will Burdick said in his article Against the Global Grain, The Lesson of Quinoa’s Incredible Popularity:

“So many people are eating a healthy food that they are driving up the demand for it, which means more people will grow it and make a living off of selling it and it will become more common and so more people will eat it.”

“It’s also a symptom of globalization generally … Some diets in Bolivia have probably been changed forever. The issues that led to that, though, are really not limited to an increased demand for quinoa. They’re geopolitical.”

What’s happening with quinoa has happened in countries all over the world, where most agricultural land and labor is taken up with cash crops grown for export to Western countries: bananas, coffee, cacao beans, coconut, rice, mangos, grapes, cashews, not to mention meat, cotton, silk, wool … the list goes on and on.

In S. America, at least the small quinoa farmers are getting some money for their crops instead of getting the shaft. But that’s only because quinoa is not suitable for industrial agriculture mono-cropping techniques.

A Little Perspective: We’re laying waste the planet to satisfy the word’s insatiable and growing meat addiction – huge ocean dead zones from fertilizer run-off, the Amazon rain forest (the lungs of the planet) disappearing at an alarming rate, and other ecological disasters.

The quinoa problem seems puny by comparison.

What To Do?

First, we could all go vegan, right smart quick. That would solve a lot of problems, as Will Anderson compellingly argues in his book This Is Hope | Green Vegans And The New Human Ecology (highly recommend).

I know it’s not the global way – but we could give up eating imported food, including quinoa, and eat only locally grown food, or at least food grown in our own countries.

Millet is a nourishing grain which grows in Colorado, Nebraska and S. Dakota, quite close to home, and costs a lot less than quinoa. Sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds are produced in the Midwest too, and are way cheaper than cashews.

Just about any food will grow in S.E. Iowa, where I live, and was grown, before the rich Iowa soil was given over entirely to corn, soy and Confined Animal Feeding Operations or CAFOs for hogs.

Going back to the days before industrial agriculture and globalization spoiled everything would be great! Let’s work together toward that goal before it’s too late.

Until we can persuade everyone to go vegan, and stop having kids (I don’t honestly think that’s a likely scenario), and until we develop local agriculture systems to provide a nutritious, varied diet for everyone in the area, eating a strictly local diet would be limited, nutritionally challenged, and boring. We would still need to import some food from other regions and even other countries.

For now, I’ll eat South American quinoa when I can afford it. And eat more millet. And pray that those farmers in Colorado and Saskatchewan get serious about growing quinoa.

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16 Responses to “Quinoa – Are We Bad for Loving It?”

  1. Savvy Veg says:

    Hi Carvid,

    I think it’s the most difficult thing for humans to accept (maybe impossible) that they are subject to natural law like any other species. If we multiply beyond the capacity of our environment to support us, and despoil our environment besides, then we will be wiped out – as many human populations and other species have been before us. As for quinoa, the economic law of supply and demand work there. Quinoa is now beyond my price range and I’m sure that of many others.

  2. CARVID S says:

    I was king of hoping the childless vegan comment wasn’t tongue-in-cheek. It is a serious problem and the number of people commenting on a veg site that they don’t get it is discouraging. Read Daniel Quinn or Thomas Malthus if you really don’t understand. The planet will be fine, we just won’t be here.

    Anyway, thank you for this article about quinoa, particularly the “A little perspective” part. We find pearl barley very satisfying and prefer it over millet and try to cut the amount of quinoa with millet, brown rice, barley, wheat berries, etc.

  3. Yogagurl says:

    I am convinced that those say they cannot eat a vegan diet just aren’t doing it right! Most people still do not know how to prepare, cook, and use high density protein foods. Most think we get it all from vegetables and grains only! Lauren, I came from a long line of meat eaters. There is nothing in my heredity that supported “vegan” eating….yet I am doing it. If I can I think anyone can but you must learn HOW.

    Oh about the quinoa issue. I just purchased a bunch of quinoa from WF…my god it cost 21 bucks! I also have ethical concerns. When I heard that our market was taking the super nutritious grain from the indigenous folks and they were eating WHEAT, that isn’t as nutritious and may cause allergies, I felt bad. I think I’ll eat it only occasionally now until it’s more mass produced elsewhere.

  4. Savvy Veg says:

    Thanks for commenting, Bryanna. Yes! Canada is the big hope for commercially viable quinoa on this continent, but as I understand it, at this point it’s mostly available in local markets, or in the rest of Canada via the internet. :-( Next time I visit Saskatchewan, I’m stocking up! So far, in the U.S., quinoa growers in Colorado satisfy a very tiny percentage of demand. Until quinoa gets cheaper again (not holding my breath), I’m switching to millet! http://bit.ly/1atOjFh

  5. akglow says:

    Thanks for the suggestion about millet. I heard another suggestion yesterday, to try out amaranth, but would need to find a source from the US. As for comment about not having kids, I actually would like to see this idea to be encouraged by limiting the number of tax exemptions for children, or increasing taxes for larger families(ie The Duggars -though not families with adopted/foster children).
    One of My reasonings for this is due to the extra resources being used.

  6. Meagan says:

    Just waned to say, I totally got the joke about everyone going vegan and stop having kids.Didn’t want you to think the joke was lost in everyone.
    Also wanted to thank you for the informative article.

  7. Savvy Veg says:

    Hi Nate, true about the price. A bag of chips costs $4! You get a lot more out of 1 lb of quinoa. But I was trying to make the point that millet (or brown rice or barley) are much cheaper than quinoa if someone can’t afford $4, and they’re also nutritious grains. I was being a smart mouth about stopping having children. You need a totalitarian regime (like China) to enforce zero population growth and I’m not a fan of that kind of government. I don’t have any info about population growth in quinoa growing areas, or government policies about that in S. American countries, but I’d imagine that the indigenous farmers might need a few children to help harvest the quinoa.

  8. Savvy Veg says:

    Hi Lauren, I agree with all your points except the one about sickly vegans. I think that omnivores, vegetarians and vegans can all suffer from malnutrition if they don’t have a healthy diet, enough exercise and so on. And that anybody can thrive on plant protein. Protein is protein when it comes down to it.

  9. Savvy Veg says:

    Hi Gina, thank you! I was exercising Canadian humor about everyone going vegan and not having kids, but apparently only Canadians get that kind of humor! I honestly don’t think that it’s a good idea to force anyone, but I hope that more people will feel motivated to do those things voluntarily.

  10. Savvy Veg says:

    Thank you Leah! I hope that you enjoy millet. I was being tongue-in-cheek about not having kids, but I guess I’d better edit that bit so it doesn’t sound harsh. I have three children myself, and 5 grandchildren! Most of those were not planned.

  11. Leah says:

    I found this a well-balanced analysis of the quinoa “problem.” I also appreciated the recommendation of millet. I’m going to try that, because I really don’t like quinoa. However, what’s with the jab at people for having kids? That seems uncharacteristically harsh of you. I’m pretty sure you didn’t mean it the way it read to me. At least I hope not!

  12. Gina Maslow says:

    This paragraph really spoke to me:
    Until we can persuade everyone to go vegan and stop having kids, and until we develop local agriculture systems to provide a nutritious, varied diet for everyone in the area, eating a strictly local diet would be limited, nutritionally challenged, and boring. We would still need to import some food from other regions and even other countries.
    Zero Population was very big in the 60’s as was Diet for a Small Planet. How far and how little we have traveled since…

  13. Lauren says:

    It’s not going to happen that everyone goes vegan. For one thing, not everyone thrives on a pure vegetable protein diet. I have seen many vegetarians who look pale and ill from sticking to beans and tofu who would do better by eating meat and fish. Everyone’s nutritional needs are not the same. As far as quinoa is concerned I’ll continue buying it. I can only make decisions for myself. And globalization? It’s not going to slow down anytime soon. To encourage sustainability, I think, requires a more global view such as concerns about quinoa. However, the farmers themselves want to sell their product and so far, even with a few Costco stores dropping it, it looks as though consumption isn’t decreasing. Concern can turn into arrogance.

  14. Nate says:

    $4.00 a lb. is very reasonable when you look at what we pay for bottled water and a lb. of ground meat, junk cereals and other food like substances. And what we pay in medical expenses. I’m sure the doctors living off our SAD (Standard American Diet)eating habits can afford these prices.

    I’m not sure what you meant about stop having children, but
    it sounded like a slam about these 3rd world countries that produce quinoa, etc.

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