Friday, February 8, 2013


In search of good health, modern society is falling back on history trying to take a leaf out of population in old civilizations. One such health source is Quinoa which was consumed as a staple by people in Peru and Bolivia. No doubt Quinoa is highly nutritious grain with the highest protein content and fiber level unequaled by any other cereal known to day. It is called a miracle grain because of its health promoting qualities and promoted. especially in markets where there is a large unsatiated demand for cures and remedies for over weight, obesity and disorders associated with consumption of unhealthy foods rich in calories, fat and salt. Quinoa surfaced at the right time when meat and poultry products are on the dock for causing severe damage to human health in wealthy countries. Consumers seem to have embraced this wonder grain whole heartedly for coming out of this Catch 22 situation! To top it United Nations Organization has declared the year 2013 as the Year of Quinoa!

Quinoa was an obscure grain till a few years ago native to Peru and Bolivia where it was and still a staple food to poor population there. Until recently this grain was available only in few outlets catering specialty foods with very few takers who were convinced about its intrinsic value. It was a dietetician's delight with hundreds of recipes generated to marry this grain to the western palate. It was a story that resembled that of Oats which was pioneered by Quaker company achieving tremendous success due to incessant and extensive promotional campaign claiming instant cholesterol reduction and protection from heart disease. To a large extent Oats and Quinoa succeeded in the West because of the over obsession with low fat foods and promotion of policies by the government to promote healthy eating practices by avoiding refined starch based foods. Further the importance of dietary fiber for good health added to the importance of grains like Oats and Quinoa.

It is not clear as to how Western palate was able to adjust to the some what slightly bitter taste of Quinoa though health fads generally do not bother about such minor disadvantages. It is understood that appropriate milling of the grain removes saponins considered responsible for the bitterness. Quinoa has some good culinary appeal because of the white curls that forms around the grains when cooked. Vegetarians embraced quinoa as a credibly nutritious substitute for meat. Unusual among grains, quinoa has a high protein content (between 14%-18%), and it contains all the essential amino acids in right balance for good health. Besides it has about 7% dietary fiber besides good levels of Phosphorus and Iron. Arrival of Quinoa gave this segment of population an opportunity to give up purchase of costly food supplements to augment their "poor" vegetarian diet. Between 2006 and 2012 price of Quinoa in the US is reported to have trebled, an unparalleled inflation for any food in recent history. The present price of $ 3200 or INR 17000 per ton is indeed a princely one beyond the reach of many middle class population. Increased demand naturally led to creating of premium brands of Quinoa such as black, red and other types offered at still higher prices and the wealthy consumers do not seem to have no complaints!

One of the after-effects of Quinoa success in the Western market was causing of great distress to the lives of millions of people in Peru and Bolivia who were sustaining on a diet based on Quinoa grown locally and available to them at affordable prices. History has shown that any country which can expect high returns on export of any commodity would naturally encourage such trade regardless of its impact on local situation. Same did happen in Peru also where the limited production of Quinoa was diverted more and more to exports, starving the local population of this nutritious food. In stead imported, nutritiously deficient corn, obtained from the US, costing a fraction of the export price of Quinoa, became predominant food in these countries. Imagine the impact of such a change on the over all health of the population there! Corn is not considered a complete food and can never be a substitute to nutrient laden Quinoa. If reports are to be believed a chicken is much cheaper in Peru than a kilogram of Quinoa!

Another fall out of the new surge in export of Quinoa is that Peruvian farmers are increasingly resorting to mono culture cultivation by taking up quinoa production to maximize returns from their land. How can any one blame them for this tendency though in the long term this would impinge on the soil health as well as their own health. What would happen to the soil health there with mono culture becoming more and more prevalent in a country which had a portfolio of diverse crops till recently. Can the world ignore this undesirable development any more? While promoting health through better farm products is a desirable goal for the international community, it ought to be done equitably with least damage to any segment of population. Here is a case where the health of people in rich countries is sought to be boosted by driving those in poor nations into more and more poverty. This is a serious matter deserving the attention and consideration of the world community and ensure equitable development that does not favor rich people alone!

If Quinoa trade is a fine example of economic distortion that is causing world-wide miseries, Asparagus presents a slightly different picture. This exotic vegetable, considered to be a privileged food of wealthy people, is another agricultural commodity causing intense environmental damage to Peru. Being a water intensive crop, Peruvian farmers are growing this vegetable in Ica region of the country causing rapid depletion of water resources which may eventually make it an arid area in the years to come. To boot it those toiling hard under sub-human conditions to grow this crop does not get much returns as most of the profits are creamed off, by the middle men and super markets in the West. According to some reports the living conditions of the families involved in Asparagus cultivation are pathetic at best which raises the inevitable question whether exports can be the "be all and the end all" for many of the developing countries just to earn a few dollars at the expense of the well being of their own population.

While economic factors will justify such transformation of traditional agriculture into export intensive crops, environmental issues associated with growing and transporting these crops are assuming more serious dimensions lately. Is not the world concerned about the large carbon foot prints caused by these activities? The very basis of local food movement is to discourage such long distance haulage burning exhaustible fossil fuels and spewing out carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which is considered responsible to a great extent for the global warming phenomenon now being blamed for floods, droughts and desertification of fertile lands. Deforestation is another dimension to the problem of such rapidly expanding agricultural activities whether it is for sugarcane, palm oil or soybean and one can imagine the the magnitude of disaster waiting to visit humanity if large scale clearance of rain forests takes place in the name of increased food production!  


1 comment:

biotech said...

very informative and rational article :)