For more than a year now, we've been confused about quinoa. The crop came onto the public's radar only six years ago, blasting quickly from anonymity into a ubiquitous grocery staple, hailed by health fiends as the "Andean superfood." The hype is deserved when we look at quinoa's benefits -- including all the essential amino acids, trace elements and vitamins, no gluten, and it's the only vegetable that's also a complete protein. Plus, it's delicious. And, as it turns out, ripe with political and ecological conflicts.
Early last year, we learned about the dark side of quinoa: The first world's overzealous taste for the "supergrain" -- actually a chenopod (cousin to a beet), not a grain -- was driving the price point of Bolivia's staple food out of their own reach, pushing the country towards cheaper, less nutritious alternatives. In addition, increased demand was leading to deforestation across Bolivia and Peru, and llama shepherds -- guardians of the region's natural fertilizer -- began leaving their herds to cash in on the quinoa boom.
Part of what makes the issue complicated is the fact that remains: Although the quinoa is all getting shipped our way, the export is still bringing a lot more money into the Andes. That means more children in school, better infrastructure, and the general security of a higher income.
So, what do we do? Buy or Boycott? Maybe, just maybe, we should do that California thing and start growing our own. Beyond feeding Northern California's obsession with sourcing everything locally, growing quinoa domestically would likely mean a lower price point and bolster the hope that we could disentangle ourselves from the problems of sourcing exclusively from the Andes.
But, how doable is it? To begin, there are 3,000 varieties of the seed, and while the quinoa we eat now is adapted for the dry, cool, arable land of the Andes, many of the other varieties offer hope that it can thrive in different climates. One man in particular -- Kevin Murphy, a grain breeder from Washington State University recently interviewed by NPR -- has been working on discerning and developing varieties that would thrive in the Pacific Northwest. Farms like Wild Garden Seed in Oregon are also growing it with some success.
There's even one operation in the Colorado Rockies,White Mountain Farm, that has been succeeding in growing quinoa for 25 years. Lately, they've even had trouble meeting demand.
So, there's certainly a precedent for growing quinoa in the region, and more recently, evidence that we could manage it a lot closer to home. Between Twin Peaks and Diamond Heights, a local nonprofit called ECOSF is working on growing the stuff in the backyard of two schools -- Ruth Asawa School of Fine Arts and the Academy of Arts and Sciences. The Bold Italic drew our attention to the nonprofit, which is focused on helping schools and businesses set up sustainable gardens and modes of food production, as well as educating the public about growing food. In the last two years they've begun experimenting with quinoa, and it seems to be working.
This year, the project produced about ten pounds of quinoa on roughly 250 square feet of land. Next year, they plan on growing four times as much. But, when it comes to urban farms, it sounds like we might be better off growing quinoa for the greens, not the seed.
"It's remarkably nutritious, and it has a wonderful taste. I recommend anyone plant it in their home garden," says David Wentworth-Thrasher, a program coordinator at ECOSF.
To be truly competitive with Andean producers, however, quinoa as a seed would have to be a commercially viable crop. Temperatures over 95 degrees will sabotage a harvest, as would humidity, which means most of the Central Valley's fertile land is off limits. When I ask Wentworth-Thrasher, he points to the Eastern Sierras as the most promising area.
"We don't have all the humidity in the foothills, and it never gets over 85 degrees. It's somewhat similar to the Andes, and it could be a really prime place to try out growing quinoa," he said.
If it's truly viable, why hasn't growing quinoa caught on? In NPR's interview with Kevin Murphy, he suggests that farmers just haven't had the time to adjust to quinoa's astronomic rise in popularity. Besides time, what does it take to get quinoa growing around here? Wentworth-Thrasher contends that it's about making some leaps with money.
"Most people who are in a position to make an impact, who have the resources to do it, already have a system they are indebted to. The ones that have the heart to make an impact just don't have the resources," says Wentworth-Thrasher. "There need to be people who are willing to take risks."
Even so, Wentworth-Thrasher sees quinoa going domestically commercial in the next five to ten years. In the meantime, ECOSF will be experimenting with different varieties and working on spreading the word.
"Our biggest challenge is trying to define that line. Are we growing food or teaching people how to grow food? We don't want local, nurturing food to be a privilege thing."
Wentworth-Thrasher and the ECOSF team are currently working with four varieties of quinoa, with a few notable successes. When we ask about the potential for quinoa to survive as a resilient crop, he points to natural selection as an effective process for bringing out the best candidates. From the sounds of it, it will only be a matter of time.
For more information on ECOSF's projects, visit their website. If you're interested in learning more about what it takes to farm the stuff, all are welcome to join volunteer workdays on the second Saturday of every month.