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The Dark Truth Behind The Popular Superfood, Quinoa

As the hype around quinoa builds, so do big questions about the problems with its production. 

Quinoa is rising up the popularity charts as a food staple in U.S. and Europe. A growing spate of positive coverage cites quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wa) as a high-protein grain-like relative of spinach and beets which is a newly discovered gluten-free superfood. Its growing popularity has also spawned a growing source of controversy, following reports that high global quinoa prices put the crop out of reach for the people who grow it.

Many Americans want to get down to the bottom line: Should I eat it or not? Tanya Kerrsen, a Bolivia-based researcher for Food First who studies quinoa, thinks that is the wrong question.

“The debate has largely been reduced to the invisible hand of the marketplace, in which the only options for shaping our global food system are driven by (affluent) consumers either buying more or buying less,” she writes. “…whichever way you press the lever (buy more/buy less) there are bound to be negative consequences, particularly for poor farmers in the Global South.”

So what should you know about quinoa and its complex story?

Let’s begin by looking at the Bolivian Altiplano, the high flat plain in the Andes where quinoa originates, from the perspective you might have if you were to visit. Two and three miles above sea level, the Quechua (modern-day Inca) and Aymara (a people who pre-date the Inca) still live in the same place where they first domesticated quinoa as well as potatoes and many indigenous crops you’ve probably never heard of: oca, arracacha, kañawa, isaño, papaliza, and much more.

In the north, around Lake Titicaca, you’ll encounter warm days and cold nights. Altitudes range from 10,000 feet and up. Here you’ll observe a wide variety of crops and livestock: potatoes, barley, lima beans, sheep, pigs, dairy cows, and even guinea pigs (yes, raised for food). You might see some quinoa, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single llama, even though they were domesticated in this region.

Travel south and the temperature gets cold and the climate drier. Cows and sheep give way to llamas and alpacas. The land is covered in shrubs and grasses, although if you head over near the mountain Sajama you can see the world’s highest forest. Even still, the trees are tiny and stunted compared to what you might think of as a tree. Most crops would be unable to grow here, but the llamas and alpacas happily survive off of the native vegetation, as do their wild cousins, vicuñas. As a tourist, you might choose to visit the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flats, which form an amazing landscape—literally, a sea of salt.

It is here in the Southern Altiplano, near the salt flats, where one finds quinoa growing for export.

In areas where Bolivians can grow more diverse crops and raise more profitable livestock, they do. But here, very little grows. According to Kerssen, “Quinoa was particularly well-suited to areas with 'high climatic risk' such as the southern Altiplano—able to withstand levels of drought, salinity, wind, hail, and frost in which other crops would perish.” The region is characterized by very little rainfall, more than 200 frost days per year, and poor soils.

The history of this part of the country, and its people, has been virtually dictated by its natural resources and climate. In pre-Columbian times, Andean peoples obtained balanced diets by trading extensively with their neighbors at other altitudes, often based on kinship ties.

This was disrupted when the Spanish found silver nearby in 1545. In the following centuries, an enormous percentage of the local population was conscripted into slave labor in the mines, and many never returned. The Spanish also set up haciendas in much of the country, in which the indigenous farmed to produce food and wealth for white landowners. The haciendas continued long after Bolivia’s independence, until the Bolivian revolution in 1952.

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