By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM
Quinoa: An Old and New Nutritional Food in Western Diets
In February, the United Nations declared 2013 “The International Year of Quinoa.”
Quinoa is the latest trendy food originating in the developing world and quickly popularized in the Western World. The crop is critical to the diet of many in South America, but also has superb dietary benefits for societies now “discovering” it.
Quinoa (KEEN-wah) has many qualities that ideally suit the palettes of Americans and Europeans. While 30 years ago there was scarcely a market for this crop outside of Bolivia and Peru, the export market currently is booming and quinoa can be found in nearly all health food stores and large supermarkets.
Quinoa is a seed likely native to the Altiplano in the Andes. The plant belongs to the beet family, growing as an elongated vertical stalk with rows of seeds on each. Quinoa has been domesticated in the Andes for at least 3,000 years for human consumption, but perhaps it was harvested in the wild for nearly 7,000 years.
According to an article in Eating Well (April 2013), Bolivia and Peru produce 90 percent of the crop worldwide and Bolivia, the largest producer, harvested 48,500 tons (44,000 metric tons) in 2012. Since 1999, Bolivian production of quinoa has increased by at least 50 percent. The result of quinoa’s new-found popularity is rapidly rising local prices.
Currently, most commercial quinoa is grown in the cold, dry Altiplano between 8,202 to 13,123 feet (2500 and 4000 m.), but it is also found at lower elevations in Chile and Peru. Varieties of the plant can withstand some nighttime freezing temperatures and dry, infertile soils, while other varieties can endure tropical moist environs. It is a very hardy and adaptable plant.
The quinoa seeds (called grains) are harvested only by hand, thus limiting its adoption as a crop in the world’s mechanized agriculture regions. The seeds are dried and their bitter husks removed, leaving grains slightly larger than rice. The bitter husk seems to dissuade birds from pirating the seeds in the field.
Quinoa can be used in many recipes. It has a texture like rice, but generally takes less time to cook. Unseasoned, quinoa has a slightly nutty taste and it can be seasoned to suit nearly any palette. It fits well in place of rice in most any meal, but it has far more dietary attributes than rice.
As a basic food, quinoa is a “bonanza” of nutrition. Abundant in iron and fiber, quinoa is a complete protein, providing all nine essential amino acids. It is gluten free and most of the current production is grown organically.
Quinoa thus provides vital nutrients to high elevation populations who lack many cultivated fruits and vegetables. Perhaps even more crucial to the Altiplano’s population is the fact that quinoa is quickly cooked, saving home fuel. In the near absence of woody plants on the cold and barren plains of the region, fuel is a premium.
Quinoa is now sold around the world, becoming popular not only in North America, but in Europe, Asia and Africa, as well. The Chinese and Japanese markets for quinoa are particularly increasing. Its 2011 value per ton on the world markets was nearly 10 times that of wheat. Up until now, quinoa as a crop has not been widely adopted in other countries, perhaps because of its intense labor requirements, but it is only a matter of time.
As the market cost of quinoa has increased in Bolivia, there have been benefits and penalties to the Bolivian population in general. Farmers’ incomes have increased exponentially, even drawing some rural-to-urban migrants back to farming. On the other hand, the rising price of quinoa in the local markets has created a food security issue, particularly among the poorer non-farm population.
Such food security issues often occur in developing countries. As economies change from self-sufficient farming to commercial farming, often either the land is removed from food crop production or the food itself is sold in international markets at higher prices than the local population can afford. In both cases, food prices quickly escalate, affecting the poorest, weakest, youngest and oldest segments of the population the most. In the case of Bolivia, removal of nutrient-rich quinoa from diets may have particularly detrimental and lasting effects on Bolivia’s youngest generation.
And that is Geography in the NewsTM
Sources: GITN 1195 A New Food in Western Diets, April 26, 2013; Thompson, Matt, “Quinoa,” Eating Well, April 2013; www.cookingquinoa.net/how-to-cook-quinoa; and http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?dbid=142&tname=foodspice
Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor.