Quinoa has long been a staple food in South America but has been gaining popularity in Europe and the US since the early 2000s, marketed as a healthier, tastier replacement for rice. The sudden surge in demand for one type of quinoa forced farmers to take measures to rapidly increase yield, to the detriment of land, trees, soil and water use. Quinoa, like any food, can and should be grown following sustainable practices and, compared with similar crops, doesn’t require any more resources.
There are over 3,000 varieties of quinoa. However, the demand to date has been for only a few types, which has caused the farmers to stop growing many others. This has resulted in environmental degradation and damaged soil, because the land was not left to fallow (rest between harvests). There are now incentives in place for farmers to grow less common types of quinoa and programmes to encourage their consumption in schools and restaurants. This popularity has opened global trade opportunities for farmers and benefitted local economies enormously. The quinoa case stresses the importance of growing and eating a wide variety of grains and cereals to help decrease the reliance on any one specific type.
Botanically, quinoa is not a cereal but is a relative of spinach, beets and chard. It is a hardy plant that can tolerate frosts, droughts and high winds, and requires little fertilisation. This means it can grow in diverse climates and terrains, including areas with minimal irrigation or as little as three to four inches of annual rainfall.
Quinoa is a complete protein as it contains all nine of the essential amino acids. It is gluten-free and contains an exceptional balance of protein, fat, minerals and vitamins.
It can replace rice in many dishes, such as pilafs, stuffings, salads and even veggie burgers, giving a nutty flavour and enhancing texture.