The International Year of Quinoa

by ‐ Tags: green living

2013 has been declared the International Year of Quinoa by the United Nations. Good news for some of us quinoa lovers here in the WegoWise office. Yet, this decision by the UN is surprising for some due to last year’s contentious New York Times article exposing the negative social impacts from increased global quinoa consumption on the Andean indigenous people who grow the crop. Due to quinoa’s soaring popularity, fewer indigenous people in top producing countries, such as Bolivia and Peru, can afford to eat the native grain, consequently switching their diet to cheaper processed foods. However, public discussion about the issue has brought to light the complexity of the situation and put forth some ideas on how to address the issue.

 

But first, the question that needs to be answered is what makes quinoa so great? Why would the United Nations devote an entire year to this ancient crop, which has only recently surfaced as a global commodity? To start off, the nutritional value is next to unmatched by any other globally consumed “grain” (quinoa is actually a seed, but is commonly categorized as a grain). According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization report, quinoa is the only plant-based food that contains all the essential amino acids, trace elements and vitamins and contains no gluten. Due to its complete amino acid combination, NASA recommended it as a protein source for long-duration space travel, and the UN FAO reported that it is nutritionally equivalent to mother’s milk. To give you a better idea: if 1 oz of chicken has approximately 9 grams of protein, 1 cup of quinoa is equivalent to 1 oz of chicken. Not bad for a seed, huh?

From an agricultural perspective, the quinoa crop is remarkably adaptable to different agro-ecological regions, with high tolerance for low soil moisture. This, among other reasons, means that quinoa has the potential to be grown internationally. The UN has therefore decided to promote the dissemination of the crop to contribute to global food security.

So what will need to be addressed to make 2013 a successful quinoa-filled year? Here are just two of the main issues pertinent to quinoa globalization:

Food Security

 

The UN states at the top of the International Year of Quinoa resolution that they seek to recognize the Andean indigenous people for their role in “preserving and protecting quinoa in its natural state as food for present and future generations”. The UN has the political power to work with the governments of quinoa producing regions (Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador) to ensure that not all quinoa yields are exported. Through mandating that a percentage of quinoa yields stay within the country’s borders, increases in the price of the protein source for indigenous people will not be exorbitant due to increased international demand. Such policies have the potential to ensure better food security for agricultural communities by impeding a shift in diet to unhealthy, non-traditional food due to high prices.

Soil & Genetic Diversity Conservation

The international demand for quinoa over the past three decades has led to the expansion of traditional cropping areas from the foothills of the Andes to the surrounding plains. After the implementation of mechanical tillage of soil in Bolivia’s salt flats, production area increased from 15,000 ha in 1980, to nearly 40,000 in 1990 (FAO Report). This rapid expansion coupled with shortened fallow periods and increased mechanical tillage led to the deterioration of soil structure in Bolivia. According to the article "Soil Erosion and Labor Shortages in the Andes", the soil degradation led farmers to further extend field areas due to declining agricultural productivity perpetuating the problem. The slogan for the International Year of Quinoa is “a future planted thousands of years ago” referring to the Incan heritage of the crop, yet unsustainable farming practices can hinder quinoa’s potential to contribute to global food security. The UN will need to specifically target support to organic quinoa farms with sound soil conservation practices, ensuring the long-term sustainability of increased quinoa production in the area.

 

So what does this all have to do with energy efficiency?

Understanding the embodied energy in your food is as important for 'green living' as reducing energy usage within your home. Soil degraded from unsustainable practices requires increased fertilizer inputs, which takes substantial amounts of energy to produce. Furthermore, farmers who do not receive adequate compensation for their yields have to resort to expanding their fields to make enough money to afford food. Although there are undoubtedly limitations to how much that can be controlled as an individual consumer, demand for fair trade regulations has been successful in promoting sustainable and socially sound practices in the past (i.e. fair trade coffee). Balancing health and sustainability concerns can be tricky because it is precisely the success of healthy foods such as quinoa that can ironically increase malnutrition in exploited agricultural communities.

For our blog readers who love to eat quinoa, enjoy 2013 to the fullest by seeking out fair trade and organic quinoa. If you’re new to the nutritious and delicious ‘psuedograin’, try some recipes from the NY Times Quinoa Week post to start off!