THE CONUNDRUM OF QUINOA

If you’ve been paying attention to food trends and even beer commercials, you’ve noticed that the quinoa craze has been sweeping the nation. Hailed as the latest and greatest superfood, quinoa is the seed of a plant related most closely to beets and chard. The quinoa seeds contain essential amino acids, are gluten-free, and contain high levels of calcium, phosphorous, and iron. What’s not to love?

Well, quinoa’s explosion in popularity may have farther-reaching consequences than we might have thought. Some worry that the demand for quinoa takes food off the plates of native Andeans – but quinoa has never made up a major portion of the diets of Bolivians, so we’re fine, right? Not exactly – because demand for quinoa is so high, more Bolivians are leaving the cities to return to rural areas and farm. Unfortunately, many of these novice farmers are not using good land management practices. Their determination to grow as much quinoa as possible means that they no longer practice crop rotation (essential for returning nutrients to the soil) and have ceased raising llamas, whose manure provided natural fertilizer for the thin fragile soil of the Andes. The combination has started to lead to loss of soil quality and erosion in Bolivia, and it is unlikely the trend will stop anytime soon.

So what can you do? Take a step away from quinoa. It is an excellent food, and a good addition to or base for dishes – but it doesn’t have to be in every dish. If you must have quinoa, you should look for certified organic quinoa that has been proven to use natural fertilizers and no chemical pesticides. You could also look for quinoa produced closer to home – farms in Colorado and Minnesota have begun cultivating quinoa crops, and by purchasing from farms in the States you’ll reduce the travel footprint of the food you buy.

Meanwhile, consider trying out some other grains. Bulgur wheat is a hearty addition to meals, as is wild rice. And if you’re craving those essential amino acids found in quinoa? There’s always beets.

Image Credit: Maurice Chedel