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Quinoa : why it is good for humans and bad for the planet

Why will Grandpa Carlo never eat a dish of quinoa?

Today we are going on a trip. We are on a dirt path that crosses the Andes, in Bolivia: high altitude, clear sky, rarefied air, slopes covered with wild shrubs and a ferocious wind that sweeps the dust. Here Luis, a Bolivian colleague of Grandpa Carlo, has his company: for countless generations his family has raised llamas and alpacas on the gentlest slopes, reserving the most inaccessible terrain for cultivation. The basis of Luis' diet is golden wheat grown in the most difficult terrain, at over 3000 metres.

El grano de oro is a common local Andean ingredient, used in peasant kitchens, a basic food, authentic and humble as polenta was for Grandfather Carlo and for all farmers like him, in the lower Bergamo area of ​​the past centuries.

Who would know that we are talking about quinoa, today known as a superfood with incredible nutritional qualities, consumed by the kilo in our metropolises, in fresh quinoa and vegetable salads or cooked in healthy cereal and quinoa soups.

Over the millennia, the golden seed has represented a food as ancient as it is precious for the proud Andean populations, so much so that it has deserved the nickname "mother of all seeds". Entire generations of farmers have prospered thanks to quinoa: we can clearly imagine them, at the table, consuming traditional meals with the same taste and the same seriousness as Nonno Carlo as a child, satisfied and grateful to have in front of him a plate full of polenta, vegetables and boiled, after a job well done in the stable.

Is quinoa a grain?

Yes, quinoa is a herbaceous plant of the chenopodiaceae family (the spinach family), very resistant and therefore easy to grow in extreme conditions. However, it is often considered a pseudo-cereal and a valid alternative to corn, wheat and co.

On Luis's farm, quinoa production is still symbiotic with llama farming, as has been the case for millennia: the animals in fact provide fertilizer in a balanced way to the arid soils of the Andes.

“The breeding of llamas, together with quinoa, was the basis of the Andean people's livelihood. The ancients knew and respected this balance" and this is what Luis continues to do, day after day, like our Grandfather Carlo who still today gives birth to his calves in the farmhouse and mows hay from the surrounding land, to raise his cattle respecting the balances of Mother Nature.

Luis and Grandfather Carlo have solid roots, great values, strong families, but unfortunately not everyone manages to maintain the delicate balance between breeding, production and consumption.

The journey of quinoa: from the Andes, to our table

In Europe, in the last century, quinoa seeds were practically unknown and around the nineties they made their appearance as an expensive niche product in a few specialized shops. Quinoa, together with amaranth, was greatly appreciated by celiacs as a nutritious and naturally gluten-free food. In those years, the sale of quinoa in Europe as a "luxury food", produced and traded from a sustainable perspective, meant giving value to the thousand-year-old heritage of agricultural knowledge of the Andean territory, allowing farmers to see their work valued and fairly paid.

Where can you buy quinoa? Today quinoa is no longer a niche product, but a very popular food, also widespread in supermarkets. Quinoa is now a super food, one of the protein sources loved by vegans. It all began in 2013 when the UN launched the "International Year of Quinoa", unintentionally promoting this food into mass consumption.

In the course of a very short time, the demand for quinoa recorded a record surge of 260%: a real agricultural boom which saw production go from around 27 thousand tonnes in 2008 to over 50 thousand in 2013. Currently, 90% of Quinoa seeds products are intended for export. Thus, from 2006 onwards the price of quinoa increased dramatically, up to tripling: on the Bolivian market the price of quinoa is four times higher than that of common cereals.

The cost of this phenomenon is high: the race for quinoa has brought serious natural and social imbalances to our friend Luis' colleagues.

In fact, in order to satisfy the boom in demand, Bolivian and Peruvian farmers have started cultivating quinoa using every space, effectively making this cultivation an intensive monoculture like corn and soy.

Some producers have abandoned crop rotation and confined the breeding of precious alpacas to smaller areas (communities that previously had thousands of animals now have less than a hundred animals). To produce even in less suitable territories and without the contribution of alpaca manure, many farmers have begun to use greater quantities of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

From super food to “bad food”

And here the super damages of this supposed super food come home to roost: very serious loss of biodiversity in the Andes, impoverishment of the soil, erosion, air pollution, water reserves and pollution even of the product itself, once so noble. Ancient and sacred product which now, due to excessively high prices, is no longer consumed by Andean farmers who prefer to buy cheaper foods, perhaps from abroad, and risk forgetting the staple of their ancestors' diet: basti knowing that the consumption of quinoa among the indigenous population has dropped by 50%.

The quinoa phenomenon that in 2013 seemed to bring prosperity has turned out to be a false hope and a great bluff: now, to prevent further imbalances, Rómulo Caro, head of FAO Bolivia, explains that there is an absolute need for a return to the origins: “an improvement in product quality and a strengthening of sustainability processes, integrated with camelids, llamas and alpacas and with other strategies to guarantee the food sovereignty of the people”.

This is why Grandpa Carlo will never taste quinoa: because he respects his origins and his territory.

So, we leave a generous plate of delicious zango de quinoa ye bananas en salsa de mani to Luis's family and a nice braised meat with steaming polenta to us here in Cascina. Critical and respectful consumption starts from here: making food choices and behaviors and evaluating the consequences these have on our planet.