Quinoa is the grain-like seed of a plant in the goosefoot family (other members include spinach, chard, and the wonderful edible weed lambs quarters), and its appeal is immense. Twenty years ago, NASA researchers sung its praises as potential astronaut chow, mainly for its superior nutrient density. No less an authority than the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization hails it as “the only plant food that contains all the essential amino acids, trace elements and vitamins and contains no gluten.” The FAO is almost breathlessly enthusiastic about quinoa—it has declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa and even runs a Facebook fan page for it.
Joanna Blythmann questions its ethical credentials:
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.
Mimi Bekhechi of PETA pushes back by contrasting these costs with the meat-eating alternative:
Vegans aren’t gobbling up all the soybeans – cattle are. A staggering 97% of the world’s soya crop is fed to livestock. It would take 40m tonnes of food to eliminate the most extreme cases of world hunger, yet nearly 20 times that amount of grain – a whopping 760m tonnes – is fed to farmed animals every year in order to produce meat. The world’s cattle alone consume enough food to sustain nine billion people, which is what the world’s human population is projected to be by 2050.
Because vegans eat plant foods directly, instead of indirectly eating bushels and bushels of grain and soya that have been funnelled through animals first, even vegans who sometimes eat exotic foods grown in other countries still make a fraction of the impact on the environment that meat eaters do (many of whom also eat exotic foods). Enough food for a vegan can be produced on just one-sixth of an acre of land, while it takes 3¼ acres of land to produce sufficient food for a meat eater. Vegfam, which funds sustainable plant food projects, estimates that a 10-acre farm can support 60 people by growing soybeans, 24 people by growing wheat or 10 people by growing maize – but only two by raising cattle.
(Photo: Parsley, lemon and cannellini bean salad, with quinoa. Created by Ottolenghi, executed by me.)