Lately quinoa has been making global headlines and flying off grocery shelves worldwide. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa, and in Peru the production of this once nearly forgotten crop increased 350% from 1980 to 2000. So what’s all the fuss about?
Quinoa is a staple food common in and indigenous to the Andes. It is a pseudo-grain, meaning it resembles a grain in usage, but does not belong to the grain family. Quinoa is a chenopod and part of the goosefoot family, which consists largely of weeds but includes some upstanding members as well, such as spinach and the sugar beet. Quinoa is a flowering plant and the part that is consumed is considered a seed.
Quinoa purchased from the store looks like a bunch of tiny beads, similar to couscous. It typically comes in a bag similar to rice and is cooked in much the same way. Quinoa plants grow to be 3 to 6 feet high. Depending on the variety, the colors of the stalks range from purple to blue to red. Likewise, the color of quinoa seed ranges from white to black.
Quinoa is often called a superfood for its remarkable nutrient properties, including all 9 amino acids essential for proper nutrition. Of these, lysine and tryptophan—which are often lacking in plant proteins—are abundant in quinoa, making it a good protein substitution for meat. The overall protein content of quinoa is 14-18%, higher than wheat, maize, and rice.
Comparatively, quinoa also has more iron, phosphorus, and calcium. It is also gluten-free, making is easy to digest. Overall, the nutrient properties of quinoa are more comparable to those found in beans, eggs, and milk rather than other cereal grains. One cup of cooked quinoa has 222 calories and 4 grams of fat; one cup of uncooked quinoa has 625 calories and 10 grams of fat.
This combination of nutrient properties spurred NASA to incorporate quinoa into the diet of astronauts on long-term space missions. The US Academy of Science describes quinoa as “the most nutritious grain in the world.” These nutrient properties played a major role in the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization recognizing the crop this year.
Quinoa is primarily grown in the Andes, mainly in Peru and Bolivia. Until 2008, 90% of the world’s supply of quinoa came from these two countries.
The cultivation of quinoa dates back 6,000 years. Many ancient Andean cultures considered it a sacred grain. The Incas called it “chisaya mama” which means “the mother of all grains.” Fittingly, when they sowed the first seed of the season, they did so with ceremonial implements made of gold. After the conquest, quinoa was largely replaced by European staples, such as wheat and rye, though quinoa cultivation continued in rural areas.
Quinoa naturally thrives in harsh regions, where few other crops grow. With a center of origin in the Andes, it’s no surprise quinoa grows best in high-altitudes, flourishing in heights up to 13,125 feet above sea level (4,000m). A hardy crop, quinoa can be sown in sandy soil and requires little rainfall. The southern Bolivian altiplano—where the most popular variety called Quinoa Royal grows—experiences daily temperature fluctuations from below freezing to 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 C).
Thanks in part to 2013 being the year of quinoa, as well as quinoa’s jump from all-natural health food stores to mainstream supermarkets, it’s made diverse headline such as:
Quinoa’s Global Success Creates Quandary at Home (New York Times)
Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa? (Guardian)
Quinoa: good, evil, or just really complicated? (Guardian)
It’s OK To Eat Quinoa (Slate)
The main controversy stems from the idea that as quinoa becomes more popular and demand rises, so do prices. And as prices rise, Peruvians and Bolivians are no longer to afford what was once a staple food that provided important nutrients often lacking in rural Andean communities.
While this is true, it also means farmers now receive more money for the crops, improving their livelihoods. And while Andean communities may now consume less quinoa than before, it isn’t simply because quinoa is exported to wealthier consumers in the Western world. With increased incomes, farmers can now afford more expensive processed goods. It is a difference of food security (having access to a safe and nutritious food supply) vs. food sovereignty (having the control over local food supply and choices).
Sometimes food choices are cultural. Quinoa in Latin America has historically been viewed as a “poor person’s food” and was rarely consumed in urban areas. It logically follows that once you can afford something other than “poor food” you do so, even if the substitutes are less nutritious. This is similar to the social stigma in parts of Africa where yellow maize is sometimes rejected because it is associated with food aid.
The revival of quinoa runs parallel to Peru’s recent culinary revival, which has raised other formerly destitute dishes to the top. For example tacu tacu, a rice and bean dish, was once a common food among slaves but can now be found on the menu of the country’s top restaurants.
The International Year of Quinoa (IYQ) was proposed to the UN by Bolivian president Evo Morales with support from several countries, including Peru and Ecuador. The goal is to bring attention not only to quinoa’s nutrient properties, but also to its possible role in improving global food security. The crop has many characteristics necessary for it to become an important staple food crop outside of the Andes including genetic variability (good for cultivation of improved varieties); adaptability (thrives in various climates); low production cost (in terms of required input and labor); and of course its unmatched nutrient qualities. In 1996 the FAO classified quinoa as one of humanity's most promising crops.
Quinoa is currently classified as a neglected and underutilized species: A traditional crop that for some reason or another has fallen outside of mainstream agriculture research and development. This means despite all its good characteristics, little has been done to improve or expand the role quinoa can play in improving global food security. Other staple crops such as maize, wheat, rice, and even the potato are the focus of intense funding and research (through organizations like the CGIAR). Wheat research and improvement, for example, lead to the Green Revolution, which is believed to have prevented the starvation of nearly a billion people.
Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. IYQ also aims to recognize the important role Andean farmers have played in preserving this traditional crop, as well as improve the market chain and provide support for sustainable growth. Improved productivity and sustainable farming methods will help Andean farmers benefit from the quinoa boom without straining the land. Luckily, there are already organizations working with famers to improve livelihoods and make the best use of traditional crops.
Thanks to Bioversity International D. Astudillo for the title image of this blog.