The Inconvenient Truth Behind Quinoa (Plus, Alternatives!)


A thank you to my friend Karen who shared this article yesterday from The Guardian, “Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa” by Joanna Blythman. I highly recommend reading the whole article, but in case you don’t have time, the gist of it is that our insatiable appetite for quinoa in the Global North has driven producers in the Global South further into poverty. This is a classic problem of export-led development models promoted by international development agencies — namely, that when a staple crop becomes an export crop the prices are often driven up making it so that locals can no longer afford to eat their staple crop. In this case, this has happened with quinoa, the staple crop of Bolivians. There are many other examples of this from all over the world. This article also does a nice job of mentioning some of the other problems with vegan staples, like soy. Blythman notes that soy, along with cattle ranching, is one of the top causes of deforestation in South America.

Serenity in the Storm reader, Holly, made a great point on Facebook about the onus for the exploding popularity of quinoa being placed on vegans in this article. The focus on vegans as the culprit is a bit ridiculous considering what a tiny percentage of the population we are.  Focusing so heavily also does a disservice to the issue itself because a title about veganism will draw fewer readers than a title that simply stated, “the unpalatable truth about quinoa”.  

Despite this issue, though, I think this is very important information to know so that we can act in more ethical ways with regards to other communities around the world. And it’s issues like this that really highlight the importance of thinking in intersectional ways about how our actions impact not only animals, but humans and the environment as well.

I know it’s sacrilege to say in the vegan community, but I’m actually not the biggest fan of quinoa. I know it’s supposed to be this super grain/seed that’s really great, but I’m just not a huge fan of the texture and flavor. I’d much prefer to eat a nice brown rice, kamut, or other grain. That being said, we do buy a ton of quinoa in bulk because it is our go-to grain for Maizy’s and Saoirse’s food. I’m thinking we’ll have to switch to something else.  

Quinoa is beginning to be grown in the Pacific Northwest, so there may be local sources available. This summer, I discovered a vendor at the Seattle farmers’ markets who sells all kinds of locally grown grains. Perhaps one alternative is to buy grains from more local sources. Buying them in larger quantities directly from the producers would be a more economical option and I love the idea of going in on a big bag of grain with friends/neighbors. For people in the Pacific Northwest, here’s a nice article from Tilth Producers on the trend to grow more organic grains locally. For folks in the Northeastern United States, here is a resource for locally sourced grains — the Northern Grain Growers Association.

What do you think about this quinoa news?

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  1. Thanks for bringing this article to the blog, Katie, and for pointing to the importance of thinking in an intersectional way about food justice. I’ll confess that I am not a Facebooker, so I’m sorry if I repeat anything Holly said there. I just want to say couple of things.
    I really am getting tired of the lack of nuance on both sides of these kinds of conversations about conflicts of interest. This Guardian article nicely illustrates a lack of nuance from those who would have us believe that veganism itself is responsible for the problems associated with how our food is produced and marketed. On the other side, some vegan advocates show their lack of nuance by refusing to see that being vegan does not in and of itself fulfill our obligations to pay attention to the conditions under which our food is made.
    Also, I poked around a bit because the idea that deforestation is happening in order to produce soy for human consumption (claimed in the Guardian article) struck me as wrong. As far as I can tell, from looking at data from the soy industry, a huge percentage (85% of the soy meal that is made from soy beans) goes to animal feed. That’s nonhuman animal feed fed to farmed animals who are eaten by humans, not human animals who are vegans. So, let’s put the deforestation blame where it more squarely belongs.

    To be clear, I think everyone (including vegans) should think about the implications of our consumer choices and take seriously the effects of those choices on others. I just wish the press and advocates on both sides of these issues would talk in a nuanced, intelligent, way about the kinds of intersecting injustices that abound in this world.

    1. Thanks for weighing in, KSE! You make some great points here. And I think you’re absolutely right about the need for more nuance on both sides of the debate. This article’s bizarre focus on veganism made me think that this author has some personal axe to grind with vegans and this was her way of trying to knock us down a few rungs. That being said, I do think it’s a good article to spark an interesting discussion about a lot of things!

      As for the soy subject…I’ve definitely encountered quite a few people who like to throw this “your tofu is destroying the rainforest” argument at vegans, which as you say is a deflection from the real issue — that the majority of soy production destroying the rainforest is grown as nonhuman animal feed for animals who will be raised and slaughtered for in the meat and dairy industries. While I think this important point is lost on many people, I don’t think the fact that the majority of soy is grown to fuel meat and dairy consumption should have any effect on how we, as vegans, reflect on the ethics of our eating choices. The reality is that many of us vegans do eat soy (and sometimes a lot of it) and just because we’re not the majority soy consumers (as compared to meat eaters) does not mean we don’t have room for improvement. Unless we’re eating very locally grown, locally processed soy products, chances are the production of that soy and its shipment had some pretty gnarly environmental/human/animal impacts. I guess my point is that rather than shifting around blame for who’s the most responsible for these kinds of problems (as the article’s author was so eager to do in her assigning blame to vegans), a more productive response might just be that we can all (always) do better and be increasingly thoughtful in the way we live our lives…

      Of course, we can never be perfect in aligning our ethics with our consumption practices, but there’s always more room to try — a mission I’ve learned a lot about from you, KSE! 🙂

    1. Thanks, Andrea! This is a great open letter. The more I’ve been reading about this issue, the more complex it seems, with so many differing perspectives/modes of analysis. 🙂

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