Quinoa: A Sacred Grain

A Peruvian farmer displays the once sacred Incan grain.

To the Inca it was the mother grain. To Americans it’s a superfood.

Quinoa in the last decade has seen a worldwide resurgence popping up in whole food stores, on restaurant menus, and dinner tables across the world. But what does this resurgence mean to the Andean communities where this plant grows? How does the sudden popularity of a once sacred, abundant, and largely private food impact the people who have enjoyed it for decades? The answer is mixed. The rise of quinoa is following the path of globalization, bringing prosperity to some, diluting cultural traditions, and generally disrupting life (for good and bad).

In the arid highlands of Peru and Bolivia, where the grain is mostly grown, the locals have seen the price of quinoa more than quadruple. A grain their grandparents simply brought home from the hills is now an unattainable luxury for some. In the same vein, farmers who have switched to Quinoa cultivation have seen a dramatic rise in their incomes.

“Production is above 4,800 meters (15,750 feet),” notes Peruvian Quinoa producer, Andres Arocutipa. Little else will grow in these wind-swept Andean plains. “This foodstuff is very nutritious and ecological as we don’t have to use either insecticides or pesticides (given the altitude).”

The highlands of the Central Andes are among the poorest places in South America. Any kind of new income can ease suffering.

It is little wonder the plant is so popular. Quinoa – which is not technically a grain – is a high-protein, low calorie and gluten free food – both versatile and delicious. For health conscious Americans and Europeans, the plant is a better alternative to heavily-processed corn-based snacks, which bear at least partial responsibility for the obesity epidemic. Given its impressive profile, it’s unlikely the demand for this plant will wane. It follows that other Andean communities will adopt its cultivation as the market mechanisms expand and food producers tie into more rural communities.

This is the story of a globalized food industry. Proponents can point to the prosperity of small farmers in struggling swaths of the planet. Skeptics look to the disruption. Yes, quinoa is flowing north, but those processed snacks have been flowing south for decades, driving up obesity. In 2014, Doritos and Coca Cola are far more common on the dinner table than Quinoa. The sacred designation quinoa enjoyed five hundred years ago, has long ago faded.

Religion, languages and the customs, which have held on through the centuries in this part of the world are nearly all relegated to grandparents’ memories. Villages in much of the highlands have traded in their traditional clothing, their music and long list of once sacred elements for cell phones, electricity and western pop music.

This is what happens as the world grows closer. For better or worse.

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About the Author

Brian Liberatore was a newspaper journalist for 10 years before joining the Peace Corps in 2011. He and his wife served in the northern Peruvian sierra. Brian has been a lifelong environmentalist. Humanity cannot survive without a healthy planet. Brian sees it as our moral obligation to be good stewards of the Earth.