Quinoa: the crop that’s changed the life of its farmers


Do you remember the uproar a few years back when news reports described how the popularity of quinoa was negatively affecting quinoa farmers in South America? The story was that ethical consumers needed to be aware that quinoa farmers could no longer afford to feed their families because of our love affair with the grain. A few articles did appear which contradicted the stories but there weren’t many. It appeared that our food choices were leading to hungry children in the Andes where the grain is grown. Well the din did die down but the true story of quinoa and its farmers never really saw the light of day.

At the recent Oldways Whole Grains Council conference held in Seattle, Lisa Nuñez de Arco, from the company Andean Naturals, set the record straight on how our love of quinoa has really impacted the grain’s farmers.

Finally, there’s a feel good story – an inspirational one at that.

The fast food and its notable nutritional profile
But first, a little about quinoa and its stellar nutritional perks. It’s chock full of an assortment of nutrients, many of which are significantly higher than what’s found in other grains. For one, its protein makeup differs from others as it contains higher amounts plus it supplies all the essential amino acids. This certainly has endeared it to those seeking vegetarian meals. Not only is it gluten-free but it’s also packed with fibre, at 5 grams per cup, the minerals, calcium, magnesium, iron, copper and zinc and vitamins ranging from the B vitamin family of riboflavin, folate, niacin and biotin along with vitamin E. Its vitamin A content varies depending on the colour of quinoa as you can get white, red and even black quinoa seeds. Its main phytonutrients, saponins, supply both blood cholesterol-lowering and immune system-boosting action.

And it takes just 15 minutes to cook – the fastest of any whole grain.

The mother grain
Quinoa has a long and storied history in South America (Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador) where it was called the mother grain. It was traditionally grown in the Andes mountains in South America, high up in the countryside in the salt flats, where farmers barely met their production costs. The grain became known as the food of the poor and was looked down on by most Bolivian city dwellers. Because of the extensive poverty in rural areas, migration from these areas to the cities was common.

As a result of its status, quinoa was simply not eaten by those in the city. When you look at how the economic picture has changed, it’s quite astounding. Back in 2000, at the beginning of the organic boom where whole grains started gaining status nutritionally, 87% of the rural population in Bolivia were living under the threshold of poverty, making just $35 per month per farm.

As quinoa is a drought resistant crop which requires only 10 inches of water annually (compare to rice which needs 5 feet of water each year), its sustainability and nutritional value began to be recognized globally.

By 2007, Trader Joe’s started carrying quinoa nationwide and Costco soon followed. By 2012, even large multinational companies were stocking quinoa products. As a result, quinoa prices tripled between 2006 and 2013. But by 2014, prices had stabilized as quinoa became mainstream staple.

It’s been a fast growing crop: in 2008 about 7000 tons were imported to the U.S. while in 2017, a whopping 45,000 tons were imported. Even NASA is now including it on the menu for astronauts!

Today indigenous farmers earn between $200 and $300 per month and by 2014, poverty figures dropped  by 30% to 57%. This translates into 40,000 farmers that are no longer included in the poverty statistics.

These farmers now have running water, electricity, solar panels and reliable transportation. Their kids are staying in school and families can now eat more nutritiously.

On top of this, quinoa is no longer shunned by city dwellers as it’s global status has risen.

While the farmers employ some modern equipment for planting, they still use old fashioned methods as well to predict weather patterns such as observing local wildlife and flora. But they still use sickles for harvesting.

Quinoa farmers only bring 1/3 of their crop to market and hold 1/3 back until they are assured that their next crop is viable. The last third is saved for their own use. It’s interesting to note that they also eat the plant’s greens as well.

There’s now improved welfare for quinoa farmers in Peru and Ecuador as well. But what’s really important here is that there’s a trend towards reverse migration. Their children are coming back as they see possibilities for a future.

Because of quinoa’s nutritional profile and sustainability, it’s now being grown all over the world but the heirloom varieties are still from indigenous farmers in the Andes.

So as you dig into a delicious quinoa salad, pilaf or even pancakes, enjoy and put down the guilt.


Stay tuned over the next while as I report on more sessions at the conference.

Tags: , , , , ,

Categories: Food Trends, Nutrition News, Whole Foods

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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6 Comments on “Quinoa: the crop that’s changed the life of its farmers”

  1. December 12, 2018 at 10:40 pm #

    This video by Marketplace on CBC was so off the mark it made me want to throw something at the TV and make me yell at them. I refuse to watch the show entirely any longer. https://youtu.be/3tzYUeoFuNw Terrible news. Not educating the public AT ALL!

    • January 8, 2019 at 11:57 am #

      I agree that the information presented seemed to be extremely biased. The part about skipping quinoa and having only potatoes – well what can I say? I think they may have taken some of Jennifer Sygo’s comments out of context. But then, isn’t that what gets attention?

  2. December 12, 2018 at 10:42 pm #

    By the way, I still refer to your book the Enlightened Eater at times. It’s a good book!

    • December 12, 2018 at 10:47 pm #

      Thank you so much for letting me know! There’s so much love and effort put into a book so when you hear this, it’s heartwarming! ❤️

      • December 12, 2018 at 11:45 pm #

        My husband came into my life with his Adele Davis book and touted her as the great source of nutrition knowledge. I was like hey hold on a sec, she’s a bit outdated, let’s refer to the Enlightened Eater perhaps, a tad more modern? LOL. Anyhow all to say that I stood up for you. Anyhow, it’s stood me in good stead having a healthy diet all these years. I’m 58 now and in pretty good shape but am on the heavy side. But I live to Julia Child’s motto “Everything in moderation”. Between she and Marion Cunningham I realized I could cook anything. It’s nice feeling fearless in the kitchen and passing that onto my daughters. So pleasing to see the 16 yr old making better omelettes than I’ve ever made. The pizzas made from scratch are pretty amazing too. Thanks Rosie, for all your years of tirelessly getting out the word. 🙂

  3. January 8, 2019 at 12:03 pm #

    I’m so sorry for the late reply but I want to say THANK YOU! Your comments filled my heart – to hear that you stood up for me all those years ago and still read my writing. What can I say? You took me way back with the mention of Adele Davis! And then to hear about your daughter as well! Yes, both Julia Child and Marion Cunningham contributed greatly to our culinary knowledge and confidence in the kitchen. But thank you again!

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