Quinoa in the north country?


Quinoa salad. Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/roboppy/

The United Nations has declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa.  But despite its super-food status, quinoa has become quite controversial.   If you’re not familiar, quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) is a small seed that’s rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals.  It’s a vegetarian source of  essential amino acids; it’s also gluten-free.  Quinoa has become popular in health food stores, in the U.S. and Europe, and prices have tripled since 2006.  A pound of quinoa at goes for about $5.50 at Nature’s Storehouse and at the Price Chopper in Canton.

But it’s not clear whether the quinoa boom has been good news for farmers in Bolivia, or the Andean region of South America, where it’s been grown for 7,000 years.

Stories by the New York Times and more recently The Guardian portray the quinoa trade as a troubling example of how health conscious and ethics-led consumers unwittingly drive up poverty in poorer, southern countries.  According to The Guardian, the prices are so high, that people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom quinoa was once a nourishing staple food, can no longer afford to eat it.  It’s reportedly cheaper to eat imported junk food.  According to the NYTimes, Bolivia's agricultural ministry reports that the country's consumption of quinoa fell 34 percent between 2006 and 2011.

Two freelance photographers who say they’re working on a documentary about quinoa, and have spent time in Bolivia, blogged that, “The situation is far more complex than simply saying ‘they can't afford to eat their own grain.’”

When NPR reported about quinoa last November, photographer Stefan Jeremiah on his blog, “I haven’t interviewed a single farmer from the Altiplano region this week, or in my previous time in Bolivia, that has admitted to having given up eating quinoa due to the inability to afford his own grain. This is a myth and a falsehood. Quinoa farmers in Bolivia grow it for commercial gain. They set aside some grain, sometimes of lesser quality, or they sow a separate batch for personal use. I know this because I have spoken directly with many farmers on their land, in their quinoa fields…as recently as two days ago."

The blog goes on, “As farmers become more well off, their eating habits become diversified as they can afford to eat other foods. They CHOOSE to eat pasta or rice because of its increased availability and, to them, because of its novelty.”

So, the so-called evils of American quinoa-eating at least deserve a closer look.

Meanwhile, the UN says it's focusing on quinoa this year, because expanding cultivation of this crop to more countries can help contribute to global food security – and reduce hunger around the world.

By growing it in the U.S., we could avoid potentially harming other cultures by our consumption.  As NPR reports, producers in Oregon already have been breeding and growing quinoa seeds.    Experts say it needs a cool, dry climate.  Heat and rain can easily damage the crop.  But quinoa still thrives in Oregon. Washington State University scientist Kevin Murphy, says “We’re going to see quinoa being grown all over the place soon.”

So, now I'm wondering if quinoa is being grown in northern New York?  Would it have potential as a crop here?

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  1. In my opinion, Quinoa is not a viable cash crop for the North Country.
    It's prime habitat is High elevations (above 5000') and requires a long growing season with warm days and cool summer nights, think San Luis Valley in Colorado and similar environs on the east side of the Cascades.
    However, with persistence a home gardener might be able to get a crop to harvest in a year with optimal conditions. Most likely not something already strapped farmers would be willing to risk.
    Millet and Amaranth on the other hand…

    • I approve of any mention of the San Luis Valley. 😉

  2. Watching the drought and heat in the Mid-west has me wondering if growing some grain might be a useful exercise in my garden. It would be interesting to hear from some of those brave folks who have grown a bit of wheat or barley here.

  3. When I lived for a time in rural Costa Rica, I know people there couldn't afford the coffee they grew. Of course, they don't rely on coffee to survive. But most farmers who grow export crops are in this same situation worldwide, right? And isn't that what drives things like immigration from third world rural areas to first world cities? It's not good or right, necessarily. But quinoa isn't unique.

  4. More quinoa sounds like a good thing, it's delicious & nutritious.

    I suspect normal summer weather in this area might be too wet for that crop. Out west is probably better.