Quinoa: it’s still really complicated, and nobody cares about it in December

by Jeremy Cherfas on January 24, 2013

Google Trends does not yet reveal the hue and cry unleashed by Joanna Blythman’s Guardian article Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa? and I have no idea how to create graphs for the more rapidly decaying social sites. But hue and cry there has certainly been, with people using the original article as a mounting block for their favourite hobby horse.1

Me too. And my hobby horse, if you’ve been reading along, is about getting things as right as you can. So, here we go again.

Joanna Blythman’s article appeared online (only?) in the Guardian’s Comment is Free section.2 So what’s the story? The Blythman piece appeared two days after an article in what I would call The Guardian proper, Quinoa brings riches to the Andes. Dan Collyns’ story was filed from La Paz in Bolivia. Collyns seems to be a stringer, a freelance journalist who writes for different outlets, and his article, which appears to be based on quite a few conversations, raises many of the same points as Blythman’s. Was Blythman’s article prompted by Collyns’? I don’t know. She doesn’t say. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

What does matter, to me, is the accuracy of some of the claims. Take this:

Three years ago, the pioneering Fife Diet, Europe’s biggest local food-eating project, sowed an experimental crop of quinoa. It failed, and the experiment has not been repeated. But the attempt at least recognised the need to strengthen our own food security by lessening our reliance on imported foods, and looking first and foremost to what can be grown, or reared, on our doorstep.

Luckily Fife Diet itself remembers the trial.

This isn’t true.
Our trials were a success, we examined which varieties and what soil conditions worked best.
We planted four varieties: Rainbow, Chilean, Temuco and Kaslala in one acre in northern Fife.
Temuco quinoa was by far the most productive of the four varieties with big heavy seedheads by the end of the season.  Chilean came second and Rainbow and Kaslala a joint third. With early planting and a decent season quinoa can grow fine here in Scotland and we imagine through much of the UK.

I can confirm that. Several quinoa varieties did brilliantly for me in Somerset.

Then there are all the micro- and macro-economic questions about the price of quinoa in Bolivia and Peru, the prices obtained by farmers, and the affordability of the stuff. Marc Bellemare raised most of them in his blog post Quinoa Nonsense, or Why the World Still Needs Agricultural Economists. And he got some answers, most notably from Sergio Nunez De Arco, General Manager of Andean Naturals. He too has his own row to hoe, taking care of business and those 4500 Bolivian and Peruvian farm families he buys from.3

A lot is made about nutrition, mostly about what a wonderfully nutritious food quinoa is, especially for those who choose not to eat meat. But little has been said about quinoa growers, who would probably eat more meat if they could afford to, but who currently eat quinoa. Most of the commentary has focused on the price of quinoa in the shops, without relating that to the people who grow it. Bellemare asked “Are most households in the Altiplano net buyers or net sellers of quinoa, or are they autarkic relative to it?”4 Sergio at Andean Naturals answered:

The altiplano is huge and not al who live there are quinoa farmers. Why is everyone not planting quinoa? Because there simply is not an unlimited demand for it. There’s plenty of quinoa produced, and it’s not so easy finding a market. Farmers who plant quinoa are net sellers. Herders are net buyers. Assessing the financial welfare impact in the quinoa production areas is easy: tracking average income per family farm. It went up from $35 to $220 per family per month in the past 5 years.5

But what neither mention, although a successful quinoa grower in Ireland alludes to it, is the labour and drudgery of turning quinoa into food. It’s a bugger, requiring about 6 painful hours to process 12 kg. So if someone comes along and offers you cash money for quinoa, you might well be tempted to sell all you can grow – leaving more time to grow more quinoa – and buy convenient food instead. Which is what farmers are doing, resulting in malnutrition among children and adults. A machine that cuts processing time from 6 hours to 7 minutes has been developed, as have new ways of using quinoa, and these are beginning to improve the lives of quinoa-growing families.

The whole business of locally-important foods finding an export market – or even a bigger internal market – is fraught with problems and nuances of interpretation. There really are no simple stories, like meat vs quinoa.

What about quinoa diversity? If the market prefers just a few varieties, will farmers abandon the diversity that underwrites the future of the crop? How do you use markets to counter that?

What about the sustainability of the fragile ecosystems in which quinoa thrives? As demand grows, farmers have responded by boosting production in ways that, like nutrition, are good for them in the short term but are utterly unsustainable.

What about outsiders leaping on the quinoa bandwagon, as Sergio worried.

Sadly with all the negative press around quinoa there is an increasing incentive for mass-cultivated, hybrid quinoa production. These companies will provide an increasing supply of quinoa against which small farmers will have a tough time competing.

The solution, of course, is to be a bit more thoughtful about your food purchases, wherever you are. Fife Diet puts it well.

The answer we’d suggest to the quinoa conundrum (as in most food issues) is: if we want to eat it we should grow it ourselves or import it via fair trade.

A final thought. Much of the excitement around quinoa is the result of 2013 being the International Year of Quinoa (not that you would know it from the official website). Is it too much to hope that even now, publishers are readying for print a book that might do for the chenopodiaceous pseudograin what John Reader’s Propitious Esculent did for the potato in its year, 2008?

  1. We’ve been on the story, in depth, for a good long while too. []
  2. I’m not honestly sure what the status of that section is, as regards the Guardian’s normal journalistic standards. It seems at first glance to be a giant free for all, although there is quite a large editorial team responsible. Do they check content? Are subs writing headlines? It would help a bit to know, simply because I get the impression that many of the reactions to the piece got no further than the headline before either attacking or defending vegans. Blythman mentions vegans only three times, so I’m going to ignore them for the red flavoured tofu that they are. []
  3. As an aside, can you really trademark an entire type of quinoa, as Andean Naturals has for Royal Quinoa®? The specification sheet says nothing about this product that a geneticist or gene banker could use. Does that mean we could sell the same seeds, as long as we don’t call them by the same name, rather like some of the “village” wines from fine vineyards? []
  4. I added the link; not sure why the term is preferred to self-sufficient, but there must be a reason. []
  5. Citation needed? []