Each week in Eat Your Vegetables, Carissa Smith shares the benefit and appeal of some more high-brow culture we should be consuming.
This week I have for your consideration a literal vegetable, the South American “superfood” quinoa, readily available to U.S. consumers in the upscale supermarket of your choice. Quinoa, which resembles something like a nuttier, crunchier couscous in flavor and texture, is easily mistaken for a grain but, as I learned from this article, it “is actually a chenopod, related to species like beets and spinach.” Its claim to fame, particularly for vegetarians like me, is that it’s one of the most complete proteins available from a plant source. It’s also popular among the growing population of gluten-intolerant folks.
Unfortunately, there’s a downside to the rising popularity of quinoa: common people in its native Bolivia can no longer afford to eat it. The situation doesn’t have the scope of the corn crisis in Mexico a few years ago, but the issues are somewhat similar. Here’s the sobering statistic: “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.” This means that Bolivians are turning to cheaper, but less nutritious, foods like rice and pasta.
Lest you immediately swear off all quinoa, there’s also this to keep in mind:
The focus on foreign markets has altered life in isolated places like Salinas de Garcí Mendoza, a community on the edge of the salt flats in southern Bolivia where much of the country’s quinoa is produced. Agricultural leaders claim that rising exports of the plant have lifted living standards there and in other quinoa-growing areas.
“Before quinoa was at the price it is now, people went to Argentina and Chile to work,” said Miguel Choque Llanos, commercial director of the National Association of Quinoa Producers. Now, he said, rising quinoa prices have also encouraged city dwellers to return to their plots in the countryside during planting and harvest seasons.
This is the kind of quandary that could paralyze one. No food in this fallen world is free of suffering—and yet food remains God’s gift to us. Certainly, in this situation, an individual consumer boycott of quinoa would accomplish nothing except making the boycotter feel holier-than-thou (which, sadly, is often the true purpose of individual boycotts). My takeaway from this article is that the promotion of any food as a “superfood” can be harmful, since it causes us to forget about the need for variety and moderation in our diets. Now, at quinoa’s current price in the U.S., I doubt many of us are going to be consuming it in anything beyond moderation. However, food fads here can have disastrous consequences elsewhere in the world: many Bolivian famers, having reorganized their lives around quinoa production during its popularity, will suffer once quinoa falls into disgrace or oblivion in the U.S.—as most superfoods inevitably do. It doesn’t sound very exciting as a plan, but I think the best course of action is to eat a variety of foods—including, occasionally, quinoa or pomegranates or coconut water—and be thankful.