AoBBlog welcomes a new guest author, Charlie Haynes, who is currently a final year student in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Leicester.
The search for healthy, gluten free and vegetarian alternatives to a traditional meat heavy diet has led to a massive increase in demand for the grain Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), native to the Bolivian highlands. The UN named 2013 the ‘year of quinoa‘. This is a resurgence for the grain after suppression since the colonial period, when spanish conquistadores scorned the grain due to its significance within religious ceremony. This exciting new grain and has quickly and suddenly become a fashionable food.
Quinoa is a pseudocereal from the family of Amaranthaceae and is unique in the major world grains, in that the edible part of the grain is the perisperm rather than the endosperm. It is coated in chemical saponins, which act as an antifeedant reducing plant palatability, and these are washed off during grain preparation for cooking. But it is a difficult crop to grow outside of the highlands of Peru and Bolivia; the two countries being responsible for almost 90% of global production.
John Brett in Food and Foodways; Explorations in the History and Culture of Human Nourishment discusses the impact of this increase of demand and the consequences of international food aid policy which contributes to the movement of excess commodities (such as wheat) to poor countries, and the movement of more nutritious local produce to wealthy countries. In the past those unable to afford more than very occasional animal protein have been able to supplement their protein intake with quinoa grain. But the skyrocketing of quinoa prices has left poorer urban Bolivians unable to afford it as over half the population is below the poverty line. As international demand for quinoa has caused a net movement of the product out of the country, the majority of US food aid is in the form of white flour which is severely lacking in the essential amino acids quinoa provides and is effectively ’empty calories’. Despite Brett describing quinoa being rated as a food of high nutritional value in interviews, many said “it is too expensive”, and almost never consumed it. Brett noted that of fifty-seven 24-hour diet recall interviews only two respondents had included quinoa. Everyone mentioned white flour pasta or bread.
As demand for quinoa increased, public initiatives have been developed. This includes an agricultural intensification and income production programme, and a health and food security program. Yet while one was trying to build greenhouses for growing a variety of foods to increase dietary diversity, the other was trying to increase productivity and focus on those crops with the most marketability – quinoa.
Unfortunately these programmes are counterintuitive. Bolivia can take advantage of the sudden swelling of prices due to increased US and European demand (prices tripled between 2006 and 2011) and subsidise a greater variety of fruits and vegetables for those below the poverty line. Alternatively it can encourage the rural poor to grow a greater variety of vegetables themselves for dietary variety.
But it cannot do both.