Unsavoury & Unjust: the Truth behind the ‘Miracle Grain’

by Anna Moore

Quinoa has only very recently been widely available in supermarkets across the UK, but this Peruvian staple is now seen as one of today’s trendiest foods. The consequences of this may make you think twice about your healthy Instafamous salad.

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The quinoa trend first started in the United States in the 1980s. However, the recent unprecedented demand for the miracle grain saw demand soar from 7.3 million pounds of quinoa in 2007, to 57.6 million pounds by 2012. Prices of this grain also saw the same increase and tripled between 2006 and 2011. Furthermore, in 2010 quinoa was recognised by the National Restaurant Association’s “What’s Hot” survey of chefs, as one of the trendiest so-called ‘superfoods’ on the market. A couple of years later the United Nations named 2013 the ‘International Year of Quinoa’, showing recognition for the crop’s resilience, adaptability and its “potential contribution in the fight against hunger and malnutrition”.

Picture 5Quinoa is now seen as a fashionable so-called ‘superfood’ for its high levels of protein (twice that of barley), calcium, magnesium, manganese, vitamin B, vitamin E and fibre. Combined with low levels of fat, it has been called the “miracle grain of the Andes”. Researcher Philip White said in a 1955 article ‘Nutritive Values of Crops, Nutrient Content and Protein Quality of Quinoa and Cañihua, Edible Seed Products of the Andes Mountains’ that “while no single food can supply all the essential life sustaining nutrients, quinoa comes as close as any other in the plant or animal kingdom”.

The incredible demand for this ‘miracle grain’ has grown since then. The price of quinoa has tripled and so have efforts to cultivate it. In developing Peru, production has risen from 7,000 tons a year in the 1980s, to 42,500 tons in 2011. This has increased prices for local people of Peru who relied on quinoa as a staple food; today they can no longer afford to eat it. In Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken, and “outside the cities, and fuelled by overseas demand, the pressure is on to turn land that once produced a portfolio of diverse crops into quinoa monoculture.” People have now turned to imported food, which is cheaper, but not as nutrient-rich, such as fatty and unhealthy chips. This has resulted in poor food security for both the Peruvian population, and the more developed countries with an appetite for the grain. Furthermore, the significantly reduced proportion of quinoa within the Peruvian diet, combined with abnormally cold conditions in recent years, arguably caused by climate change, has led to a marked increase in malnutrition among the population. Today this is particularly noticeable in children in countries, which were previously struggling with poverty and malnutrition (according to the World Bank, in 2008 27.2% of under-fives in Bolivia suffered chronic malnutrition).

Picture 6Should we instead be demonising the demand and consequent sales of quinoa? The Peruvian and Bolivian economies have recently been boosted by establishing quinoa as a cash crop. Through this economic advance in rural areas, there has been a stagnation and even a reversal in urbanisation trends, as people move back into rural areas in order to cash in on this growing commodity. The developing demand for the ‘miracle grain’ has therefore quelled the unsustainable rural-urban migration, lifting farming families out of poverty through their rising income.

In the end, I just hope that we can clear some of the mists surrounding where our foods come from, and have a better view of the consequences of our small actions. Perhaps next time you pick up a bag of quinoa in Tesco you will see the people of the Andes.

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