Food for Thought: The Ethics of Quinoa

My husband shared an article with me a few days ago, and it has been weighing heavy on my mind ever since.

I aspire to be a conscious consumer, especially when it comes to food. I buy local produce, and when local is not available, I buy things from as close to Virginia as possible (so, for example, I choose Florida or Pennsylvania over California; U.S. over foreign, etc…). I try to buy organic produce when it comes to the “dirty dozen.” I pay attention to the meat or seafood I buy, choosing local, grass-fed meat and sustainably farmed seafood.  While I do sometimes choose to buy imported products (ahem, coconut and bananas), I have never really thought about the origins of the grains I buy.

quinoa spoon

Quinoa has gone from obscurity to wide-spread popularity in just a few short years. We have shared quite a few quinoa recipes here and lauded its health benefits. But at what price?

I knew that quinoa came from South America, and that it was a staple of traditional diets in Andean cultures, but I never paused to think about the effects of its popularity. According to ,

“The appetite of countries such as ours for this grain has pushed up prices to such an extent that poorer people in Peru and Bolivia, for whom it was once a nourishing staple food, can no longer afford to eat it. Imported junk food is cheaper. In Lima, quinoa now costs more than chicken. Outside the cities, and fuelled by overseas demand, the pressure is on to turn land that once produced a portfolio of diverse crops into quinoa monoculture.” (Source)

quinoa close

The article ultimately argues that an omnivorous diet is more able to embrace local products than a vegetarian or vegan diet. In a retaliatory article,  argues that the grain consumed by animals raised for meat makes a much more significant impact on the environment and the global food market than grain consumed by humans.

Rather than getting into an argument for or against veganism, I’d like to focus on the issue this article really stirred up for me:

When trying to be aware of the social impact of your eating habits, what factors do you consider? How do you decide which factors to prioritize?

I do not think that the simple answer to the “quinoa problem” is to stop eating imported quinoa–now that we have shifted the balance of the economy, to suddenly reduce the demand for the crop would surely have unforeseen (negative?) consequences.

quinoa bowl and spoon

My husband, always the one to play devil’s advocate in any argument, has reminded me that I often oversimplify things in my mind when trying to extol the virtues of an as-local-as-possible diet. What would you do if the local food sources we destroyed by bad weather or disease? Would you starve, or would you turn to imported foods?

So, it’s easy for me to make the choices I make when I live in a town that has high quality, local and organic foods readily available. It’s easy for me to choose organic even when it costs more, because I am blessed to have a job that allows me to make these decisions. It’s easy for me to choose “certified fair trade” products, because I choose to shop in stores that make this information available.

But trying to reduce the social impact of your eating habits is not easy. Just the opposite. The quinoa article has made me reflect on the choices I make. It has made me pause and want to investigate the origin of products I often take for granted (like grains). Labels are endlessly confusing, but I want to pay attention to the claims I see, and investigate their true meanings.

I’d love to hear about the choices you make when it comes to buying food.

Do you aspire to eat organic? Local? Are you a vegetarian or vegan for ethical reasons? Why do you make the choices you do when it comes to food?


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