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

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? []

28 Replies to “Quinoa: it’s still really complicated, and nobody cares about it in December”

  1. Agree with Julie – thanks for putting all of this in perspective. I haven’t read anyone else that has. The Blytheman piece in particular was maddening. Anyway…

    I’m excited to hear about the processing machine. Depending on how expensive that it, it could be a real game changer for quinoa. I hope it’s not too expensive or that someone (NGO, government?) subsidizes them. Or perhaps this is a role for microloans.

    “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?”

    I wonder if one could market varieties of quinoa as they do for wine and coffee. I’d be potentially interested in trying various types, especially since I’ve read that the flavor profiles vary widely by variety. I bet chefs would be interested in trying them out as well.

    1. Thanks Anastasia. The machine costs about $800 to build, I think, and blueprints are available. A competent local mechanic can make one. They’re best as part of an overall package to improve the way farming communities make use of quinoa.

      Some of the speciality quinoa types — like red and black — are charging a premium for a particular phenotype. What I was hinting at, though (because I really didn’t want to go on for too long) was a successful project on Payments for Agrobiodiversity Conservation Services, supported by the Syngenta Foundation.

        1. Hi,

          I have cultivated and harvested quinoa.
          I would like to know when i can get quinoa processing machine which can remove the saponin content.
          I am looking at a low budget solution, which can be affordable by small farmers


          K. RAMESH

  2. There was a project at Cambridge [UK] on quinoa cultivation in the 1980s – apparently successful – headed by Nick Galwey with Andean students. I don’t know what happened to this – could have been the same as the Cambridge work on Phaseolus beans for the UK. They will grow OK but not commercially viable.

  3. I have written for the Guardian Gardening and Allotment blogs before. I can’t claim to be an expert or even very knowledgable about Comment is Free, but my own experience is they either approach people or get approached, then let people write without compensation.

    Again my own experience is they’ve never edited anything I’ve written, and always accepted it intact. They do have some legal/policy things, like for example always putting the name of photographers under pictures, and the editors do check this. They sometimes fix spelling errors, and sometimes not… They seem to have a strong sense of letting everyone have their say, then if necessary let someone else write from a different perspective.

    I don’t know for how long now, but Comment is Free is very widely syndicated on the Internet by now. It’s a brave thing for a news organization to let relatively unknown people write for them as somewhat representing the editorial policy of the paper.

  4. I always chuckle when I reread Carol Deppe’s comments on her quinoa crop, sitting unwinnowed in a bucket: “I cheerfully process hundreds of pounds of corn and beans every season, but I will be happy to never clean another pound of quinoa in my life.”

    Anyone who has tried hand processing quinoa as I have, knows what a fool’s errand it is. Not even the benefits of saponin-rich rinse water to do the dishes with afterwards ever persuaded me that this was an activity to be enjoyed. I’ll be growing some quinoa this year, in celebration of the International Year of Quinoa; I wonder whether I’ll actually ever get around to eating it?

  5. Thank you Jeremy for pointing out the contradictions and inaccuracies in recent articles about quinoa. Also interesting is your graph. I have seen it before, and -curiously- it resembles very closely the graph of Lbs. of quinoa imported into the U.S. . Could be worth a closer look.

    As for the mention of the Royal Quinoa trademark- we’ve provided it at no cost to companies who can prove that they source their quinoa according to the origin, fair trade and sustainability guidelines we’ve determined. Some of these companies purchase directly from coops or exporters and not through us. We took the initiative to trademark Royal Quinoa with the hopes of protecting the name for small family farmers in Bolivia. It’s also not a certain seed type, but rather a group of various seeds varieties. The cool thing is that farmers grow biodiverse fields where there are anywhere from 3-10 varieties per field. Some are resistant to frost, some to insects, some to drought, some are all around a safe bet but are not too large, etc. Hope this helps!

  6. Jeremy, I didn’t know that quinoa was not only a pseudo-cereal but also a “pseudo-grain”. Or is that a typo? In any case, you wouldn’t want to eat anything “pseudo-“. .. let’s just call it a chenopod(iaceous) grain…

    I didn’t see amongst your links (which, by the way, is an excellent collection, for which I am really grateful…) the piece of Doug Saunders (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/commentary/chow-down-on-quinoa-and-three-modern-food-fallacies/article7536845/) which provides a refreshing perspective that debunks the infectious “killer quinoa meme” propagated by his fellow journalists.

    One noteworthy argument used by Saunders is that quinoa “had all but died out as a staple in Bolivia” by the 1980s. In a book chapter about to be published (http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9781849714570/), I argue that quinoa has indeed been a secondary food item in living memory in the Andean highlands (except perhaps for small pockets in the Altiplano), and that its decline probably has its roots in the emergence and growing competition of highland-adapted maize prior European contact (admittedly, the evidence for the latter is scant… although there is some).

    I would thus seem that the current outrage about the significance of quinoa becoming unaffordable is based on a fallacious premise, namely that the poor have consumed massive amounts of quinoa prior to the current price surge, and are now deprived of a food that was nutritionally significant to them. In that regard please see the short communication of Winkel et al (J. Agronomy & Crop Science, 2012): “Although quinoa is promoted in the markets of the northern countries as the ‘rice of the Incas’, Andean populations have never consumed it as a staple cereal, like rice in Asia or wheat in the Middle East and Europe. In fact, native Andean people regard quinoa as a ‘heavy’ foodstuff and, as a dietary rule, consider it harmful to eat it for dinner (Johnsson 1986: 107). Traditionally, quinoa is mostly used to thicken soups or drinks (lahua, pesqe) or in the form of small cookies (kispinia, mukuna), and less frequently as main dish (phisara) (National Research Council 1989, Tapia et al. 2000). […..] We agree with Jacobsen (2011: 396) that quinoa has tended to be replaced by pasta and rice, which, contrary to the quinoa grain commonly available in the villages and the urban markets of Bolivia, do not require tedious cleaning and washing before consumption. But this change occurred long before quinoa entered the export market (see Johnsson 1986: 167, referring to the early 1980s)”.

    It is unfortunate that portrayals of quinoa as an important staple of the poor continue to be made by many who should know better.

  7. I am always puzzled by claims of the frost resistance of quinoa. The alleged frost tolerance of quinoa and other Andean crops permeates the literature as some miraculous adaptation to high altitude, as if these crops resisted frost no matter what…. Of course, quinoa and other Andean crops get regularly damaged or destroyed by frosts. These crops are grown in periods for which no frosts, or at least no severe frosts, even at high altitude, are expected to occur. Could someone perhaps clarify what the critical temperature is for quinoa damage? -2, -5, -10 degrees Celcius? Duration?

    1. Extract from the Alberta article:

      Quinoa plants are usually tolerant to frosts (–1.1 to 0 oC). Plants exposed to below 2.2 oC at mid bloom stage could lose over 70% seed yield due to flower abortion. However, they can tolerate the temperature as low as –6.7 oC after the grain has reached the soft-dough stage.

  8. Has there been research into how much protein we need to eat, concidering all the permiatations, gender, children, pregnant etc on a daily basis, and if so whose measuring stick is being used?
    Does a normal healthy adult have to have a high protein diet (even if it isnt meat) every single day. I know we have been led to think so but I’m not so sure.

    1. There has been masses of research into how much protein people of various ages and in various states need to eat, generally being revised downwards over time. The point about animal protein, and quinoa, is that they contain a good balance of the amino acids that we cannot, as humans, manufacture from other things we eat. Other good sources of protein are often low in one or more of these amino acids, which means that unless the balance is made up from some other food, you aren’t able to use all the protein you eat. You are limited by the essential amino acid that is in least supply.

      The classic case is legumes and cereals. Legumes are high in lysine, low in tryptophan. Cereals the reverse. So all around the world you find that people tend to eat a combination of legume and cereal, from rice and beans to chapati and dal to peanut butter and toast.

      1. While I agree with what you say, it’s not without some controversy. In particular the first thing you say, protein needs being revised over time, might seem to make the second part of what you say not very relavent for human health — that you may not be able to use all the protein you eat.

        This was for example, more or less the conclusion of Francis Moore Lappé after she wrote Diet for a Small Planet 1971. She also noted the body seemed to have a remarkable ability to combine amino acids from different foods over long periods of time, and it did not seem necessary to combine these amino acid sources at the same meal or even on the same day. According to the Wikipedia page of this book, the following was added to the 1981 edition on page 162:

        “With three important exceptions, there is little danger of protein deficiency in a plant food diet. The exceptions are diets very heavily dependent on [1] fruit or on [2] some tubers, such as sweet potatoes or cassava, or on [3] junk food (refined flours, sugars, and fat). Fortunately, relatively few people in the world try to survive on diets in which these foods are virtually the sole source of calories. In all other diets, if people are getting enough calories, they are virtually certain of getting enough protein.”

  9. Thanks for this very insightful breakdown. It’s quite obvious that Bythman feeds off of misinformation about quinoa and the fact that people are threatened by the vegan movement. By blaming vegans for the (debatable) harmful affects of quinoa productions, she is reassuring readers you have typical diets that the status quo is okay. This translates to higher readership.

    Furthermore, quinoa is great because it has all the essential proteins BUT you can also get those from eating beans and a banana. Once again, we are rather misinformed consumers. I write more about this here.

  10. I am looking into alternative crops to grow on a commercial scale and Quinoa looks like an interesting prospect. This page has some of the best advice on the subject generally. As a commercial farmer my main concerns are in regard to gross margins so I need to get an idea on costs of growing versus price per tonne. Does anyone have an ability to point me in a better direction on this.

    I have this from Alberta but wondered if there was anything closer to home. We farm in West Sussex on an arable only system and are not organic.

    Thank you for any help on the subject.

  11. How does Quinoa compare to Oats? Oats are also high in protein, but we have a long history of cultivating them, recipes for them and they’re relatively trouble-free.

    I think as the world’s population grows that we’ll be forced to utilize more of the less popular crops and draw more protein from plant sources. We should be growing more legumes too, they’re high in protein.

    An easy, very versatile, ancient Eurasian crop is at least as good as Quinoa and has more uses – Hemp – food and fibre, high in protein and all the amino acids like Quinoa.

    Looking at the Irish trials though, it certainly looks like a crop we should be growing in the UK and Northern Europe, at least on a small scale. Eventually we will probably be able to breed low saponin varieties, making processing easier (especially for home growers).

    The Irish trial had some natural hybrids of Quinoa with native White Goosefoot and the plants looked very robust and higher yielding than the Quinoa (on the left in this picture).

    I think judging by that picture that we should be looking at hybridising breeding hybrids via conventional plant breeding and selecting for high yielding, more robust plants. With native flora in the ancestry, the might be more adapted to Northern European conditions. It is suggested that Quinoa likes dry conditions, would hybrids adapt better to the rainy British Isles?

    Also, regarding the hybrids, I’d consider their potential as a weed and Quinoa’s potential to cause genetic pollution to White Goosefoot (would hybrids replace it as with hybrid bluebells, or would the hybrids co-exist alongside the parent species as with Welsh Ragwort?).

    So many questions. Quinoa is an exciting potential new crop, I think farmers in the UK should definitely look at growing it, but we also need to research it here first.

  12. The demand for Quinoa is growing rapidly and the pressure put on farmers to be responsible for all aspects of grain production has lead to increased cost of production and decreased returns at the farm gate. Every new regulation or “good” idea the authorities have, and any cost associated with the implementation is passed on to the growers. The result being growers will and are responding to the potential of a handy profit by producing Quinoa on large scale. At the cost of the Third world farmers culture and livelihood.
    In the interest environmental responsibility, food miles and the gross margin. I would also like to grow, process and sell Quinoa locally.
    You made reference to a design for a Quinoa milling machine. That would be suitable to make. Where can I find these?
    British Quinoa Company are growing several “super food” crops in the UK for anyone over that way.

  13. Hi Ben – for very small local scale you can use a washing machine. Best to have a dedicated one. First run a cycle with vinegar instead of laundry detergent. Put the quinoa in a pillow case and tie it shut. Using cold water run 2 cycles. Taste, and repeat (may take 3 cycles) if you still taste saponin. When done place on drying trays and store.

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