quinoa
Quinoa (second from left) and assorted grains. (Image: Denise Unsplash/Johnson)

OFFICIAL DEFINITION

Quinoa refers to the flowering plant species Chenopodium quinoa, more often to the edible seeds of its varieties and cultivars.

RAZER DEFINITION

Since the year 2000, quinoa has been cultivated by the agricultural tonne. But not so many tonnes that the many can (a) afford to eat it or (b) be bothered pronouncing it.

More on quinoa the word later. We return to quinoa the plant and the pre-Columbian past in which it was a dietary staple.

Since the last glacial period ended — circa 9500 BCE — farming or food resourcing has been “invented” many times. Indigenous peoples of the Andes thawed out no later than 5000 BCE to begin cultivation of an altitude-hardy crop, fertilised by alpacas.

Quechua peoples of the territory now named Ecuador were seen farming it intensively by the Spanish who barged in and all but forbade its cultivation.

quinoa
If only the invading Spanish could see quinoa now. (Image: Unsplash/James Sutton)

WHY IT MATTERS

This commodity doesn’t pay producers well. This is often true, but true just once that a commodity had a UN Year.  

Bolivia asked that the UN make 2013 the International Year of Quinoa, perhaps with hope its own road to UN Development Goals would make a useful map for others. The UN agreed, cheered quinoa a lot and Bolivia’s ongoing reduction of hunger and of infant mortality a little.

The seed was promoted, but Bolivia’s development of its industry was not. Peasant co-operatives, low-interest Venezuelan state loans and a regional food security agreement founded by Chávez and Castro were not 2013-friendly quinoa facts.

A friendlier fact in quinoa’s year was its soaring cost. An unfriendly pseudo-fact: Bolivia could not afford its staple in 2013.

Quinoa is a staple for Andean peoples, who began to suffer malnutrition about the time quinoa hit Harvard’s better halls. It’s a staple for the subsistence farmers of UN photo ops, hit by poverty when the cost of quinoa tanked minutes — surprise! — after its big Year ended.

WHO CARES?

The UN cares.

Pure neoliberalism doesn’t need the quinoa example, because “it is up to them what they make of … a major source of income”. If markets never make poverty and the poverty is the refusal to make something of the market, then the global market is an invisible bouncer that keeps the riff-raff out.

The UN’s Manchurian neoliberalism needs quinoa. First, they spent a lot of money on it, and continue to commission studies that argue its success, even conceding that the quinoa push has exposed Andean peoples to the threat of market fluctuations as never before. Second, it’s another one in the eye for Venezuela and, third, proof that a rising tide can lift boats without demands from angry, ripped-off sailors.  

Finally, quinoa is the sort of Eurovision statement the UN expects itself to sing: peoples can be made invulnerable to poverty by the seed of their own indigenous wisdom.

RELEVANT FACTS

  • Quinoa is farmed in 75 countries, including Australia where 45 edible tonnes are produced each year. Ours is a typical national dabble; Peru and Bolivia harvest most of the world’s 150,000 annual tonnes.
  • Superfood” is a universally dodgy word, and claims for quinoa as protein-rich are specifically dodgy. First, spelt contains more protein, but also delicious gluten. Further, those with a gluten sensitivity may be triggered by quinoa.  
  • Although the UN produces and distributes pictures of newly well-to-do peasant farmers, many in interesting hats, profits from quinoa produced in Peru and Bolivia are overwhelmingly collected by large private firms
  • KEEN-wah is the recommended pronunciation. KWIN-oh-uh is a sign of low birth, but arguably closer to the Quechua word pronounced “KEEN-u-wah”, then adapted into Spanish imperfectly, so that it actually looks, and sounds, French. Ergo, any Anglophone who “mispronounces” the name of this bitter grain should continue and not feel shamed by ruling class pretensions.
  • Speaking of ruling class pretensions: phrases including “Ancient Incan Grain”, “Incan treasure” or “gift from the sacred Incan gods” are all stupid. Incans did speak Quechua but were ruling class bullies who did not eat unpleasant peasant cereal.

RAZER’S LAST WORD

The “empowered indigenous women” story told by the UN is not only a bit of a porkie, but of best utility to Western marketing departments. However, that Quechua or Aymara peoples are served far less by quinoa trade than they serve its spin is not the biggest problem here.

Sure, selling an identity for use by Paleo diet celebrity porridge recipes and pleasure of casually racist “spiritual” antivaxxers is rot, but not as rotten as economic post-poverty make-believe.

The tale is told wrong by the UN to “advance” the indigenous peoples, and to advance the shonky hypothesis of convergence: tiny economies grow at a greater rate than the powerful economies with which they trade until that “traditional catch up” (never) occurs.

Andean peoples are “free” to trade quinoa, but prohibited by “free trade” agreements to grow it for profit.

In closing, none of this has been any good for alpaca farming, which is a post-colonial crime, but also a crime against cuteness.

FURTHER READING

A Quinoa Fad, Wealthy Demand of a Poor Supply: Globalized Economic Pressures on Rural Bolivia

No other reading recommended as claims that quinoa “just tastes great” in salad are already in oversupply.

Peter Fray

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