Recently my husband told me to stop eating quinoa because the farmers in South America could no longer afford to buy it. Is that true? — Beth, Breckenridge
These days it seems that everyone is keen for quinoa (pronounced “KEEN-wah”). Its popularity has skyrocketed in the last several years. In 2007, the U.S. imported 7.3 million pounds of quinoa, but by 2012 we were importing 57.6 million pounds, primarily from Bolivia. Similarly the price has exploded from $1.50 per pound to as high as $8 per pound.
Wondering why this seed is suddenly so popular? Consider that it is an excellent source of amino acids, which are building blocks of protein and responsible for innumerable functions in the body. Approximately 10 essential amino acids cannot be made by the body, so they must be eaten. Unlike other sources of amino acids, quinoa is low-fat, wheat-free, gluten-free and easy to digest.
Most people refer to quinoa as a grain, but it is actually a broadleaf plant bearing a dense seed head. The seed itself is about the size of millet and coated with saponin, which has a bitter taste easily removed by washing the seeds in water. The culinary uses for the plant and the seeds are endless: the leaves can be used as salad greens or cooked like spinach; the seeds can be sprouted or cooked and used as hot cereal. This versatile seed can be used in place of almost any grain.
This “super grain” is primarily grown in the arid mountains and coastal valleys of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile where conditions are ideal for quinoa, which is both heat and moisture sensitive. Temperatures above 95 degrees will destroy a crop, and if the plants receive too much precipitation during autumn harvest the crop is rendered useless because the seeds sprout. Interestingly, some varieties have been known to survive freezing solid overnight.
They simply thaw out and continue growing. With quinoa being so nutritious and versatile, once it was discovered by affluent, health-conscious First World consumers it is easy to see how demand accelerated so quickly. Andean farmers are struggling to keep up and planted 400 square miles in 2012, up from 240 in 2009. The “quinoa rush” is a double-edged sword for the local economies. Whereas the intense interest in quinoa has boosted local family incomes from about $35 per month to $220, it has also made it difficult for farmers to afford to eat what they grow, shifting their diets to rely on nutritionally inferior processed foods.
Property disputes are also on the rise in the arid, cool quinoa agricultural areas of the Andes as South American entrepreneurs compete for the limited arable land perfectly suited for quinoa. Simultaneously, llama herders are abandoning their animals to plant quinoa. Traditionally llamas were the natural fertilizers of the farmland and without them there is already a noticeable decline in soil productivity.
In the 1990s Colorado State University researchers received a patent for a new quinoa variety but dropped it due to pressure from Bolivian producers who claimed it would destroy their livelihoods. Still, work continues on creating new varieties that grow in other climates. So far Peru has developed a variety that flourishes in coastal zones and there are other programs underway in Argentina, Ecuador, Denmark, Chile and Pakistan.
We are lucky here in Colorado because our climate is close to the finicky quinoa growing conditions of the Andes, giving us a local resource for quinoa. In 1987 the White Mountain Farm near Mosca began planting quinoa. Located in the San Luis Valley and cradled between the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountain ranges, the farm sits at approximately 7,600 feet in elevation, creating suitable conditions for growing quinoa. Even with the right climate, quinoa is challenging to grow. In 2012 the White Mountain Farm planted 120 acres but only harvested 70 acres after a summer of destructive weather.
Several years after the initial seeds were sown, farm owners noticed the quinoa stalks were 2 feet higher than their predecessors. The original seed had inadvertently crossed with its native North American ancestor, lamb’s quarter, to create a heartier black quinoa which is darker in color, crunchier in texture, and possesses a grain-like flavor. Many foodies maintain that Colorado’s black quinoa provides an incomparable taste sensation that’s well worth seeking out online and at farmers markets. And if Colorado quinoa becomes more accessible, you’ll be able to support regional food that may help alleviate some of the challenges of the Andean quinoa farmers.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.