Is Quinoa Sustainable?

Quinoa is a staple food in the Andes Mountains with high nutritional value. This led it to be labeled a superfood.

Demand for this superfood seed got so high in the 2010s that concerns over sustainability were published across the internet and still prevail now.

Thankfully, this crop is sustainable – though conventional farming still holds it back. Much of the quinoa industry has recovered from the popularity boom now, so unsustainable farming and worker exploitation are less of a concern now than they were.

Is quinoa a sustainable crop?

Grown in the Andes Mountains, this staple food is primarily produced by farmers in Peru and Bolivia. While some countries – like the United States, Canada, India, and some European countries – have taken to growing quinoa, over 90% is still produced in South America.

This seed thrives at high altitudes, grown in manure produced by llamas, in the wild. But many farms rely on conventional manure made with chemicals. Unlike the llama manure, this conventional manure can cause soil depletion and erosion – even more so when quinoa is grown as a monoculture, without other crops or crop rotation to help provide nutrients to the soil.

This is why it works so well as part of crop rotation alongside other grains.

The use of pesticides on these crops is rarer than most other crops as the seeds have a natural coating made up of saponins, which deters birds and may help repel some pests. However, many breeding programs strive to reduce or eliminate the saponins to produce sweeter-tasting quinoa and forgo the process of washing saponins from the seeds.

Why quinoa is not sustainable?

Saponin-free quinoa may reduce the amount of water needed to process the seed and retain more nutrition of the plant, but it also results in increased usage of fungicides and other synthetic chemicals.

Claims that organic quinoa isn’t worth the cost due to a lack of pesticides or known genetic modification are mostly optimistic about the production of this staple food. More studies are needed to determine the extent of the saponins coating of quinoa seeds, especially because these seeds can be attacked by pests like aphids, inchworms, flea beetles, lygus bugs, slugs and snails, and wireworms.

For many farmers, the work and money put in to treat pests on quinoa plants aren’t worth it, especially when cheap, synthetic pesticides are much more convenient.

When this pseudograin is grown outside of its natural habitat, it’s more likely to suffer from diseases and pests, which are usually treated with pesticides. This can further cause soil erosion.

Other unsustainable farming practices – including monocropping and ignoring fallow periods to allow the soil to recover between harvests – worsen the environment. When quinoa was a trendy superfood in the 2010s the race to meet the demand caused many farms to implement these practices to increase crop yields.

How does quinoa affect the environment?

Producing this staple food is mostly environmentally friendly because the crop doesn’t require too much water and can grow in dry climates.

This seed has been traditionally grown sustainably with the help of llama and alpaca manure, though due to high demand farms opted to use conventional fertilizers and monocropping methods to increase yields.

It’s these farming practices that have caused the most environmental harm, by depleting the soil of nutrients and contributing to soil erosion.

According to Kellogg’s, they obtain quinoa from a supplier in South America that uses two different pesticides – one, Entrust, is registered for organic use with the Organic Materials Review Institute. A hectare of unknown fertilizer is also used to produce 700kg of this seed.

Ecochain used this data to work out the expected carbon dioxide emissions of 1kg of quinoa. At 1.48kg of CO2, 1kg of quinoa emits about the same amount of greenhouse gasses as 100g of fish. If you compare one-tenth of that amount to other grains, like rice, the difference between emissions is small enough not to be concerning.

Especially given that this staple food is eaten less than rice.

A 2020 study found that even conventional farming of these seeds from smallholder farms doesn’t produce many greenhouse gasses. Conventional and organic quinoa production were comparable in their CO2e emissions.

Is quinoa good for the environment?

It is seen as a promising crop that can be grown on less arable land and might be able to replace more sensitive crops as global warming changes the climate.

In 2013, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations sought to promote quinoa cultivation across the world. This pseuodograin was seen as a potential answer to global hunger, being a gluten-free crop with enough nutrition to provide both food and nutritional security.

While quinoa can grow and adapt to different climates, growing it in non-native regions can take resources away from native crops.

Careful introduction of this staple food can be beneficial to small regions – especially in fighting food security – but it’s also important to respect the natural environment and ecosystems that are already present.

The saponins present on quinoa seeds may protect the crop in its native range yet be devastating to other ecosystems. But the saponins could also be extracted to create natural molluscicides against invasive species like the golden apple snail.

Most of the advantages of this seed require producers to be cautious about production and avoid damaging the environment through conventional farming practices.

By taking care of the soil and land, farmers can limit the environmental impact of quinoa by rotating crops on fields and using only organic fertilizers. Ideally, farms could rear livestock like cattle or pigs using surplus crops and use manure generated by the livestock to fertilize the land.

However, more needs to be done to ensure that farms are founded and maintained according to standards that protect the environment and local communities.

This includes education on sustainable farming practices and protection for workers. Because sustainable farming is more expensive to start, cheap labor can be seen as tempting for farmers who want to capitalize on healthy food trends.

Is quinoa ethical?

The exploitation of workers and concerns over human rights has made many people question just how ethical the production of this staple food is.

Most of these concerns relate to the quinoa boom of the 2010s and how it disrupted the quinoa industry in Bolivia and Peru.

The quinoa popularity boom between 2005 and 2013 caused its price to surge by 600%. This caused many farmers to prioritize selling their crop overeating it themselves, replacing the nutrition of quinoa with cheaper foods like noodles and rice.

These profits helped a lot of children in Peru and Bolivia to attend university and farmers to upgrade their farms. But when quinoa stopped being a trendy food, the amount of it exported and the price plummeted.

Many farms even replaced other crops like rice and asparagus with quinoa during the boom.

While the industry has recovered from the sudden decline, there are still issues around the exploitation of workers. The price of quinoa has stabilized to be affordable once more, but some farmers still seek to capitalize on the branding of it as a superfood.

This can lead to quinoa farmers underpaying workers, withholding wages, and abusing migrant workers.

It’s important to always buy organic, Fairtrade seeds to support farmers who protect both the environment and their workers.

Should you eat quinoa?

Because quinoa is a pseudocereal produced using plant seeds, it is both vegetarian and vegan, which already makes it better for the environment than most meat and dairy products.

However, you should be wary of buying too much-imported seeds. As it is a staple food in the Andes, it’s important not to draw too much demand away from South America. If you live in South America, supporting local or Fairtrade farms is ideal, but elsewhere it’s best to be wary.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t eat it. Ethical consumption of this staple food- by purchasing organic, Fairtrade brands – also requires diversifying your diet with other, local foods, instead of relying on imported goods.

Find out more about the sustainability of other popular foods you consume regularly, such as palm oil, rice, honey.

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