ONTD Political

Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?

3:29 am - 01/17/2013
Ethical consumers should be aware poor Bolivians can no longer afford their staple grain, due to western demand raising prices

Not long ago, quinoa was just an obscure Peruvian grain you could only buy in wholefood shops. We struggled to pronounce it (it's keen-wa, not qui-no-a), yet it was feted by food lovers as a novel addition to the familiar ranks of couscous and rice. Dieticians clucked over quinoa approvingly because it ticked the low-fat box and fitted in with government healthy eating advice to "base your meals on starchy foods".

Adventurous eaters liked its slightly bitter taste and the little white curls that formed around the grains. Vegans embraced quinoa as a credibly nutritious substitute for meat. Unusual among grains, quinoa has a high protein content (between 14%-18%), and it contains all those pesky, yet essential, amino acids needed for good health that can prove so elusive to vegetarians who prefer not to pop food supplements.

Sales took off. Quinoa was, in marketing speak, the "miracle grain of the Andes", a healthy, right-on, ethical addition to the meat avoider's larder (no dead animals, just a crop that doesn't feel pain). Consequently, the price shot up – it has tripled since 2006 – with more rarified black, red and "royal" types commanding particularly handsome premiums.

But there is an unpalatable truth to face for those of us with a bag of quinoa in the larder. The appetite of countries such as ours for this grain has pushed up prices to such an extent that poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom it was once a nourishing staple food, can no longer afford to eat it. Imported junk food is cheaper. In Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken. 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.

In fact, the quinoa trade is yet another troubling example of a damaging north-south exchange, with well-intentioned health and ethics-led consumers here unwittingly driving poverty there. It's beginning to look like a cautionary tale of how a focus on exporting premium foods can damage the producer country's food security. Feeding our apparently insatiable 365-day-a-year hunger for this luxury vegetable, Peru has also cornered the world market in asparagus. Result? In the arid Ica region where Peruvian asparagus production is concentrated, this thirsty export vegetable has depleted the water resources on which local people depend. NGOs report that asparagus labourers toil in sub-standard conditions and cannot afford to feed their children while fat cat exporters and foreign supermarkets cream off the profits. That's the pedigree of all those bunches of pricy spears on supermarket shelves.

Soya, a foodstuff beloved of the vegan lobby as an alternative to dairy products, is another problematic import, one that drives environmental destruction. Embarrassingly, for those who portray it as a progressive alternative to planet-destroying meat, soya production is now one of the two main causes of deforestation in South America, along with cattle ranching, where vast expanses of forest and grassland have been felled to make way for huge plantations.

Three years ago, the pioneering Fife Diet, Europe's biggest local food-eating project, sowed an experimental crop of quinoa. It failed, and the experiment has not been repeated. But the attempt at least recognised the need to strengthen our own food security by lessening our reliance on imported foods, and looking first and foremost to what can be grown, or reared, on our doorstep.

In this respect, omnivores have it easy. Britain excels in producing meat and dairy foods for them to enjoy. However, a rummage through the shopping baskets of vegetarians and vegans swiftly clocks up the food miles, a consequence of their higher dependency on products imported from faraway places. From tofu and tamari to carob and chickpeas, the axis of the vegetarian shopping list is heavily skewed to global.

There are promising initiatives: one enterprising Norfolk company, for instance, has just started marketing UK-grown fava beans (the sort used to make falafel) as a protein-rich alternative to meat. But in the case of quinoa, there's a ghastly irony when the Andean peasant's staple grain becomes too expensive at home because it has acquired hero product status among affluent foreigners preoccupied with personal health, animal welfare and reducing their carbon "foodprint". Viewed through a lens of food security, our current enthusiasm for quinoa looks increasingly misplaced.

Source is The Guardian
mephisto5 17th-Jan-2013 12:31 pm (UTC)
'Britain excels in producing meat and dairy foods for them to enjoy. '

...well, yeah. A lot of our country is very very soggy and we don't get much sunlight (because of which, pretty much the entire population is technically vitamin d deficient)- not great for grain unless you have the shorter stemmed GM varieties but pretty excellent for pasture, which I guess is one of the reasons why the diet here has been comparitively meat heavy and why lactose intolerance is relatively low; so an eco friendly diet here (a diet designed to minimise emissions from farm practices and food miles) should probably include meat and dairy, whereas an eco diet elsewhere with different soil/climate may be closer to vegetarian/vegan.
moussaka_thief 17th-Jan-2013 01:38 pm (UTC)
Correct, but only grass fed meat and dairy - NOT feed fed meat and dairy. BIG difference in environmental impact :)

It's all about local and seasonal. We eat way too much meat as a country as a whole though to be sustainable.
hinoema 17th-Jan-2013 12:35 pm (UTC)
This is not about Quinoa; it's about manipulative, damaging and unethical business practices, regardless of the commodity.

Also, I don't see why it isn't more widely grown in the US. I have bloody Amaranth all over my yard, and this isn't that much different. It sounds like a perfect plant for high desert.
owl_eyes_4ever 17th-Jan-2013 12:39 pm (UTC)
They experimented with growing it somewhere in Europe with no success. I'm sure someone could try in the U.S., though the previous failure may make people less inclined to try for fear of wasting money.
brinylon 17th-Jan-2013 12:45 pm (UTC)
I'm not vegan or vegetarian, but pretending there are no issues whatsoever in the "production" of meat is pretty disingenuous.

(Edited for typo.)

Edited at 2013-01-17 12:45 pm (UTC)
mutive 17th-Jan-2013 02:16 pm (UTC)
Agreed. I like meat just fine, but I don't pretend that everyone eating tons of it is great for the environment.

There are a lot of holes in this argument.
bleed_peroxide 17th-Jan-2013 01:14 pm (UTC)
*sigh* Veg*ans are not the only people that eat quinoa and I hate that we're being singled out here. My mother is a your average meat-lovin' German and still eats quinoa.

Let's be real. It's not like factory farms are exactly great for the planet or the people that work in the slaughterhouses that follow right after. We're tearing down rainforests to make room for factory farms overseas, and the grain we use to feed cattle for us could be used to feed people in developing countries that would otherwise go hungry.

Is this a problem that should be addressed regarding quinoa? Absolutely. Should people be singling out veg*ans and pretending that their own diets don't have problematic elements? Fuck no. Yes, I'm a vegan, but I don't even eat quinoa (unless my mother makes a batch for me or something) because I can't afford the stuff, and I don't have time to cook it.
mildmag 17th-Jan-2013 01:24 pm (UTC)
Hi, fellow German vegan?

The soy thing caught my eye. Last time I checked, most soy is being produced to be fed to cattle, not for veg*an consumption.
moussaka_thief 17th-Jan-2013 01:33 pm (UTC)
Yeah, so importing basic foodstuffs from the other side of the world is problematic....? WELP, THIS IS BRAND NEW INFORMATION.

I mean, if you live in a temperate climate just eat (relatively) local and (more importantly) seasonal food, mainly plants. Cheap, tasty and environmentally sound.
69love_songs 17th-Jan-2013 02:02 pm (UTC)
I love this comment.
nightfury 17th-Jan-2013 02:25 pm (UTC)
Embarrassingly, for those who portray it as a progressive alternative to planet-destroying meat, soya production is now one of the two main causes of deforestation in South America, along with cattle ranching, where vast expanses of forest and grassland have been felled to make way for huge plantations.

Isn't soya production a type of agriculture, aka the #1 cause of deforestation, also including the meat industry?

There is a way to present this issue without pretentiously making it meat eaters vs vegetarians/vegans. Lets not pretend that all meat eaters are choosing environmentally friendly meat options/aren't eating quinoa, and lets not assume the complete opposite about veg people. I feel like this article would have made its point more effectively if it had focused more on swaying people to eating more locally instead of "look at what embarrassing hypocrites vegans are".

Edited at 2013-01-17 02:26 pm (UTC)
moussaka_thief 17th-Jan-2013 02:43 pm (UTC)
I feel like this article would have made its point more effectively if it had focused more on swaying people to eating more locally instead of "look at what embarrassing hypocrites vegans are".

possiblyevil 17th-Jan-2013 02:28 pm (UTC)
Oh yeah, this.

I remember mentioning this to my vegan sister (not to rub it in her face, I just find food politics interesting) and she got defensive about it. Though she works at a high-end co-op, so maybe she thought I was judging them or something. But there's just no diet you can turn to without finding something wrong with it. Food is so messed up. :/

quinoa is a fun word to say, at least?
moussaka_thief 17th-Jan-2013 02:42 pm (UTC)
There is no /diet/ you can turn to, but you can eat pretty ethically quite easily (and cheaply) in most temperate climates.

I agree about quinoa being fun to say!
tekiclutch 17th-Jan-2013 03:29 pm (UTC)
It feels like this whole article is straining to single out vegetarians/vegans and go "HAH, HYPOCRITES!" when the bottom line is damned near everything you eat that isn't locally produced causes issues...
toastieghostie 17th-Jan-2013 05:34 pm (UTC)
Yeah, exactly this.
jugglingeggs 17th-Jan-2013 03:31 pm (UTC)
I was just about to post this!

Such an interesting read. Also even though I know it's supposed to be pronounced that I still keep thinking qui-no-a in my head!
lisaee 17th-Jan-2013 05:07 pm (UTC)
Never before have I seen such an obviously Guardian title.

As a vegetarian who doesn't really eat much rice/soy/quinoa/what have you I'm sick of being singled out by meat eaters for eating unethically imported foods occasionally. I'm well aware of the damage certain types of farming does to the environment, just like I'm sure meat eaters are aware of the damaged to cattle etc.
yeats 17th-Jan-2013 05:16 pm (UTC)
the times had what i thought was a better article about quinoa, almost two years ago....better because it places more focus on what actually goes on in local communities when a "fad" food that has been a local staple for generations takes off:

Now demand for quinoa (pronounced KEE-no-ah) is soaring in rich countries, as American and European consumers discover the “lost crop” of the Incas. The surge has helped raise farmers’ incomes here in one of the hemisphere’s poorest countries. But there has been a notable trade-off: Fewer Bolivians can now afford it, hastening their embrace of cheaper, processed foods and raising fears of malnutrition in a country that has long struggled with it.

The shift offers a glimpse into the consequences of rising global food prices and changing eating habits in both prosperous and developing nations. While quinoa prices have almost tripled over the past five years, Bolivia’s consumption of the staple fell 34 percent over the same period, according to the country’s agricultural ministry.

The resulting quandary — local farmers earn more, but fewer Bolivians reap quinoa’s nutritional rewards — has nutritionists and public officials grasping for solutions.

Edited at 2013-01-17 05:16 pm (UTC)
crossfire 17th-Jan-2013 05:18 pm (UTC)
entire article "Ha-ha, vegetarians are making people starve. Where are your high-and-mighty morals now?"


I mean, I'm all for examining the classism inherent in our food creation and distribution systems, but honestly.
heresie_irisee 17th-Jan-2013 07:59 pm (UTC)
While this is interesting, it does feel disingenuous; especially since veg*ans tend to be more conscious of where and how their food is grown. IDK. I became a vegetarian(/piscitarian leave me and my salmon alone) a while ago, along with my flatmate (who was at our uni's environmental society), and it was impressed on us p early that soy is well and good as long as it's EU-grown, that eating seasonal plants is important, and so on and so forth.

I mean, I'm sure there's loads of vegans/vegetarians who're just like 'noooo poor animals' and otherwise don't really care that they're wrecking local economies and the environment, but among the ones I've met IRL I never realy saw that attitude, and people are veg*ans for environmental reasons as much as from a sense of compassion for the animals.

Generally though, short of growing all of your own food from scratch, I don't think there's a way to eat completely ethically nowadays. It doesn't hurt to try, but it feels like there's no way to not screw something or someone over.
kitanabychoice 17th-Jan-2013 08:18 pm (UTC)
Well, I suppose those two boxes of quinoa I just bought will be the first and the last, until I can research how to get it without Bolivians starving over it. Goddamn it, food industry. -_-
supermouse 18th-Jan-2013 07:02 pm (UTC)
If you can get Canadian quinoa, that's all fine.
ladypolitik 18th-Jan-2013 12:05 am (UTC)
Add me to the list of meat-eaters who find this article obnoxious and try-hard.

On a slightly related note, I vaguely recall hearing arguments that the whole "eat local" or "localvoire" movement isnt all that better, either? I cant recall what the basis of the critique is, but given that this entry prompted this tangential thought, I'm guessing it had something to do with the markets of producers/farmers in the Global South are ruined by what is essentially international food isolationism. I think price inflations were another issue, but I honestly cant recall and am on the run, so dont have quite the time to google the backdrop.

Edited at 2013-01-18 12:05 am (UTC)
rkt 18th-Jan-2013 04:37 am (UTC)
i thought i had it saved in delicious, but i;m not finding it.
what i remember also is that part of it involved folks driving out of their way to get to farmers markets and using up gas that collectively added up to gas saved by not shipping food thousands of miles. something like that anyway. where's fb search when you actually want it?
wathsalive 20th-Jan-2013 11:56 am (UTC)
What the fuck is this article
Where are the articles about how shit eating meat is to the environment lol
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