The quinoa crisis has dominated mainstream media, implicating foodies and vegans alike as the villain in the cautionary tale for a globalized world. But is going against the grain the answer? And why is Canada so involved in quinoa’s future?
In 2007, quinoa wasn’t even in the North American vernacular. Acai berries had swept the nation in what seemed like a collective effort to forget our temporary love affair with olestra. But when quinoa burst onto the scene in 2008, the South American superfood promised us a low-carb, gluten-free grain that wasn’t made in a lab — nor did it require a “may cause anal leakage” warning. It also boasted high levels of protein, iron, and calcium. Quinoa seemed as though it was designed by Mother Nature for survival in the post-Apocalypse while also being tailor-made for the modern Hollywood star. Non-meat eaters, health fanatics, foodies, allergy sufferers, and extreme dieters all wanted a piece. Quinoa, along with an associated empire of snacks, supplements, baking ingredients, and cookbooks, infiltrated supermarkets. Gwyneth Paltrow made it her muse on Goop.com, posting signature recipes like she’d been cuckoo for quinoa before Jennifer Aniston or Madonna had even heard of the super grain. Bobby Flay made a salad on TV and America watched in awe. By 2009, the most powerful person in free world endorsed it: Oprah. Where had holy grain been all our lives? It was now as North American as McDonalds apple pie – but nobody was eating gluten anymore anyway.
“Gwyneth Paltrow made it her muse on Goop.com, posting signature recipes like she’d been cuckoo for quinoa before Jennifer Aniston or Madonna had even heard of the super grain.”
Image: Stuart Franklin/ Magnum
Controversy struck hard in 2013, the same year declared by the United Nations as the “International Year of Quinoa,” thanks to the grain’s potential to end world hunger – and, of course, its performance in the swimsuit contest. The media had a different perspective – or at least a provocative one that dethroned quinoa as the reigning a symbol of health-minded, left-wing superiority, subverting it into a scarlet letter of privileged ignorance. The New York Times argued that First-World countries’ demand for quinoa, 90% of which came from Peru and Bolivia, had made the grain unaffordable to its own people – namely, the lower classes who produced it. Business Insider used chicken as a marker of quinoa’s expensive price-tag, which tripled between 2006 and 2013, noting that it had become more expensive than poultry in Lima. The superfood with an over 5,000-year history in South American civilization apparently owed its disappearance to a First-World food fad. In its place, America had left McDonalds as a parting gift; with food prices the farmer just couldn’t beat. If the American media seemed intent on criminalizing the Moksha yoga-loving urbanites, the UK had a bone to pick with PETA types. The Guardian pointed to the “ghastly irony when the Andean peasant’s staple grain becomes too expensive at home because it has acquired hero product status among affluent foreigners preoccupied with personal health, animal welfare and reducing their carbon ‘foodprint.’”
“The superfood with an over 5,000-year history in South American civilization apparently owed its disappearance to a First-World food fad.”
If my research was leading me to depressing places of global hopelessness, I kept stumbling randomly onto the same site for what seemed like a joke: Canadian-made quinoa. I assumed my Toronto location had something to do with my search results, but the third time I landed on Saskatchewan-based quinoa producer, NorQuin, I noticed the domain name for the company wasn’t NorQuin, despite what the homepage read. The url was simply www.quinoa.com. I decided owning the quinoa.com – which would still fetch an insane amount of money for the domain rights now – merited a phone call.
“We were producing 30% of the world’s supply of quinoa before anyone knew what it was,” says Michael Dutcheshen, the younger half of the father-son team behind NorQuin, on the phone from Saskatchewan. “It’s obviously a smaller percentage now that world demand is so high, but Canada could produce more quinoa than South America if we wanted to.” In his mid-30s now, Dutcheshen’s a vegetarian who was only 12 when his father incorporated NorQuin in 1994. He has grown up on quinoa — it’s as Canadian to him as hockey or ketchup chips, thanks to his dad Joe’s observation that the frost-covered Prairies could produce similar atmospheric conditions to the Andes’ high altitude climates where the super-grain flourishes. He began experimenting with different grain variations, soils, and climate zones in the province in the early ‘90s until he cracked Mother Nature’s lock on the region – giving quinoa its Canadian citizenship. The bad news was that it was 1994 – a year defined by the heroin-chic waif aesthetic and the drug-fuelled suicide of grunge’s god, Kurt Cobain. Health wasn’t exactly a big trend.
“Quinoa’s the new Kraft Dinner of Canadian exports”
By the time the quinoa boom began 18 years later, Michael and his father were business partners with a processing plant – the only one in North America and an integral part of the quinoa-making process – and they had a growing network of farmers happy to add their quinoa to their crop rotation given NorQuin’s 100% guaranteed buy-pack policy. The price tag was higher than the South American imports, but it offered customers a reduced carbon footprint and the chance to support Canadian farmers. First a wholesaler, they now sell in giant retailers like Whole Foods, and have a line of quinoa lasagna noodles, cereal, and flour as part of the brand’s offerings.
“The reason other companies don’t succeed,” says Dutcheshen when I ask him about all the failed attempts to harvest the grain around the world, “Is because they’re trying to get in on the market in a hurry, and they’re rushing the process to make profit. Quinoa takes patience.” NorQuin will have to make room on the Canadian quinoa scene for Ontario-based Jamie Draves, who claims to have developed varieties higher in protein, iron, magnesium, and copper compared to both their Peruvian and Bolivian counterparts. With government funding and investor backing behind him, he has spent the last four years collaborating with 15 different farms around the province to get the recipe right. He still needs the pricy processing plant, but he’s closer than ever to being the next big Canadian quinoa kingpin this side of Thunder Bay. With New York, Chicago, and Boston closer to Draves’ turf than NorQuin’s, he could sweep huge American markets keen on reducing their carbon footprint. Fortunately for NorQuin, though, the early adopters of the grain are in the midst of expanding stateside already. If maple syrup is taking it easy in airport gift shops, quinoa’s the new Kraft Dinner of Canadian exports… and it’s gluten-free.
Buying Canadian quinoa, however, isn’t a solution to the international crisis. Sure, there’s technically a world shortage of quinoa — a supply and demand discrepancy that the United Nations estimates will take another seven years of international production initiatives to balance — but shoppers shouldn’t be boycotting South American quinoa if they think they’re giving it back to the people – quite the contrary, in fact. Backing out of a consumer demand we’ve created, which has resulted in a quinoa-focused agricultural scene visibly lacking other crops, would be financially devastating to the farming communities it currently employees. Research Coordinator for Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, Tanya Kerssen, who has done extensive research in Bolivia, argues that the economic forces are having negative ecological consequences. What Kerssen sees as the overarching danger of the quinoa boom is over-farming. In Bolivia, she fears an agricultural crisis of Dust Bowl proportions. “What’s needed — as much in the US as in Bolivia — is for production to be regulated based on what the land can sustainably produce,” Kerssen told me via email. “Unfortunately there’s not much political will in either country to enact those kinds of policies. Because it’s politically easier to say: prices are high, let’s expand. It’s very short-term thinking.”
“It’s politically easier to say: prices are high, let’s expand. It’s very short-term thinking.”
On the brand side of things, Sergio Nuñez de Arco is attempting to make the quinoa consumer product the hero in the agricultural crisis. His company, Andean Naturals, is an importing business backed by Specialty Commodities. Run with his brother, they are now the United States’ (and the world’s) main buyer of quinoa, according to US Customs statistics. Despite the marketplace dominance, the Bolivian-born, San Francisco-based Nuñez de Arco insists the business model isn’t money-driven but a long-term sustainable initiative for environmental, economic, and cultural stability. “We even changed the legal status of our company to a B-Corp, to proclaim that we are not in business to make money,” insists Nuñez de Arco over email. “We need profits to be sustainable, but our focus is on the farmers, their lands, and the consumers. We just hired Sarah Connolly, who used to be the supply chain manager at Fairtrade USA. She is our ‘Head of Mission’ and, as such, keeps us accountable.”
Andean Naturals helps Bolivian farmers get organic certification while also regulating agricultural practices to sustain the land. “Quinoa has been a boom for Peru and Bolivia — bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in export revenues, generating jobs and taxes. We estimate the quinoa boom has elevated over 40,000 farmers in Bolivia alone out of poverty,” insists Nuñez de Arco when I inquire about the poor farmer who began this whole journalistic investigation of mine into the controversial grain. Did quinoa really multiply in price in its native lands? Did locals have to sub out their staple for American fast food? “Yes, prices are over three times that of when I started,” says Nuñez de Arco matter-of-factly, but it wasn’t as devastating as the media made it out to be. “Locals never ate much quinoa and now they are eating it more, mainly out of curiosity… and complaining it’s three times the cost of rice, but farmers still eat quinoa every day — most twice a day. No change there.” As it turns out, maybe we should feel equally as guilty for the fast food lifestyle we’ve burdened other cultures with. “As for the junk food, emerging economies are where large food corporations are focusing their marketing efforts: a less educated consumer who asks less questions and is happy to buy cheaper ‘food.’ We already saw what that did and continues to do in the USA,” says the social activist and entrepreneur. “So… yes, as incomes especially for quinoa farmers go up, so does their freedom to start buying nutritious and not-so nutritious foods.”
“Shrimp aquaculture is a problematic value chain that is far worse than quinoa”
Touché. So where does that leave the consumer? As local communities work both in collaboration with — and independently from — forward-thinking brands like Andean Naturals to sustain the environment and the economy, there will still be massive profit-focused agro-industrial producers who continue to over-farm and use hazardous chemicals (many of which have produced non-organic quinoa rejected by the FDA due to excessive pesticides). Boycotting Peruvian and Bolivian quinoa in the face of international producers offering alternatives isn’t the answer. Kerssen suggests buying brands specifically marked “Fair Trade Organic” and contacting companies to ask who their suppliers are. “The best ones work directly with producers’ cooperatives like ANAPQUI (the Bolivian National Association of Quinoa Producers),” she says on the topic of how the consumer can take an active role. “I think the best thing we can do is look around us — to the place where we live — and try to repair our own local food systems. The US model of agriculture has destroyed biodiversity, put hundreds of thousands of family farmers out of business, poisoned our water, made us obese and sick – we need to fix that!” She has a good point. One of the most telling things about the quinoa crisis is just how little we knew while the fad erupted and how much we were willing to believe when the scandal broke. “May Cause Global Crisis” is a warning label we should consider at least in our minds before adopting a new fad without doing any research beyond the health benefits of our own bodies.
I ask Kerssen what she’s most concerned with, globally, so far as food crises go. I’m not ready to jump into the vortex of another food fad gone internationally wrong with potentially devastating consequences. Kerseen says shrimp aquaculture is a “problematic value chain that is far worse than quinoa,” and I think for a second about not Googling it just yet. Last time I did that, I ended up at the top of this story with a very different idea about what was going on. And then that’s precisely why I type it in and press “Search.”
If you liked this article, check out Vicki Hogarth’s feature on the crisis in Canadian identity and politics, Life After The Mayor Election: Why Canadian Politics Still Matter.
What’re your thoughts on the quinoa debate? Let us know in the comments below or tweet us at @ViewTheVibe