Head in the Clouds
As the tour bus grunts against the steep pavement, puffing its black, acrid diesel smoke I am lifted as though in a slow, straining elevator. Bit by bit the landscape unfolds itself to reveal a beautiful patchwork quilt of delicious greens, yellows, and browns, all colors sprouting from the Earth. I could never have imagined farming to be such a beautiful sight, in such ordered disarray like the topography contours of a map sprung to life before my eyes. This is South America; this is Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and likely resembles many other places unseen by my own eyes. Thinking of these highlands transports me back to a time and place I have long-since thought about, one filled with curiosity and wonder, where time was not the enemy but, rather a distant guardian gently nudging me from one country to the next. Those were the days, with nothing but a backpack and the traveler’s bible with so much to see, yet so little funds.
There is one plant that grows in these decidedly picturesque Andean Highland farms that I hold near and dear, it is from the Chenopodioaceae family and goes by the name of C. quinoa or more commonly, Quinoa. Its name is the Spanish spelling of an early Quechua name: kinwa. This ancient power food was successfully tamed by the first peoples of South America 3000-4000 years ago in the terraced soils of quilted farmlands high in the mists of the Andean mountains. A crop so revered it was sown with golden implements and called ‘chisaya-mama’, Mother of all grains. This plant, with its deep penetrating roots and broad leaves was held sacred by Incans and Aztecs all the while fuelling their empire by way of flour, soup, cereal, bread and alcohol. Sacred eh? Rightly so, Quinoa is a pretty special plant in terms of nutrition, with its claim to vegetarian-fame as being the only plant source classified as a complete protein. In fact, Quinoa seeds contain 16 protein and all essential amino acids needed for optimal human health as well as a wide range of vitamins and minerals, making it an ideal choice for vegetarians like myself, or for anyone looking for a nutritious and delicious carbohydrate in their diet. Notice, Quinoa has thus far not been referred to as a grain (with the exception of the ancient Incans, but they couldn’t have known) – that’s because it’s technically not a grain. As we know, the typical cereal grains, such as corn, wheat, and rice are under the umbrella of the Poaceae family, Quinoa is really a pseudo-cereal masquerading as a grain. Call it what you will, it’s still a marvelously nourishing plant source.
I remember the moment seeing this sacred plant, during a journey to the salt flats of Bolivia. Travelling to the flat, parched landscape of geometrical wonder required crawling by way of an all-wheel drive vehicle through the rolling Mars-like hills of the Altiplano; where there seemed to be no living forms besides the odd bush, flock of flamingoes or dwindling herd of vicunas (wild alpacas). I am often chastised by my partner for not looking out the window during road trips; this may have been one of those moments, as he elbowed me and said “look, over there.” As he pointed I looked out the window and saw rows upon rows of unassuming green bushes, planted in the barren, rocky soil. I recall thinking “looks like that garden isn’t working out very well.” As he pointed, our guide followed his finger, he said one word: “Quinoa.” Right then and there I’m sure my eyes lit up like a Christmas tree, “Quinoa!” I exclaimed to him “of course, I totally forgot it grows here, we have to get some!” We continued our journey, further into the untamed landscape. If you have never been to Salar de Uyuni, the salt flats of Bolivia, I recommend that you go. It is an almost indescribable sight, the salt truly does form geometrical shapes, and it goes on forever, as far as the eye can see, like a flat, white ocean.
Upon returning to the city market in Bolivia I began my quest to obtain some of this super food. I had grand ideas of taking some with me to our next destination: Nicaragua for a six week beach stint to celebrate of our friends’ wedding. I thought that the dietician bride would be extremely impressed, since the starch choices in Nicaragua consist of white rice or white rice, with a side of plantain. With my barely passable Spanish and hand motions that could have doubled for charades, I asked a vendor “tiennes quinoa?” She shook her head ‘no’ and waved me along. This was a recurring trend until I reached a vendor who gave the hand signal for ‘wait’ and ran off behind the scenes. He returned with four small bags of tiny whitish circular specks. I was surprised to see that they were branded bags with a blue crown on them, for some reason I had been expecting to find vendors with large barrels of bulk Quinoa, and why not, everything else was. The man explained to me that Bolivians did not eat Quinoa often since it was too expensive for them to buy. Well, you can likely imagine how I felt standing there with my arms encircling something that was out of reach for the very people who produced it.
Socio-economic disparities like this exist all over the world, but they certainly seem more pronounced in developing nations. The rising popularity of Quinoa around the globe has driven the price high, and has put more money into Quinoa farmer’s pockets, but even they can’t afford as much of it as they would like to. The average South American would have to pay $5 a bag of their heritage. Instead, these cultures are racing to catch up to North America’s nutritionally-void eating habits, chock full of empty calories and white carbohydrates. It’s really no wonder why nutritionists in Bolivia are stumped for ideas in regards to getting communities to eat better when their limited income pushes them to purchase noodles and rice. Some Bolivian elders say that if given the choice, children would still pick the novel Mr. Noodles over a cup of quinoa.
It seems that the demand for Quinoa will not cease, nor should it I suppose. It’s time to visit alternate production, perhaps growing it in regions other that South America. I know this may tip the economic scales against Quinoa farmers, but one has to question the security of C. quinoa’s future if it continues to grow in only a handful of places. I know I will be planting my Quinoa seeds as soon as the Earth warms its soils. This marvelous plant is closely related to the pigweed that thrives in my garden, so I feel fairly confident in its survival. Planting Quinoa near Kamloops? You may ask. After all, it can grow in North America at altitudes from sea level up to 3800m. If we want to continue to use this healthful plant, it’s time to start cultivating where it affects us, right in our own backyards.
Bhargava A, Shukla S, Ohri D. 2006. Chenopodium quinoa– an indian perspective. Industrial Crops and Products. 23: 73-87.
Chepstow-Lusty AJ, Bennet KD, Fjeldsa J, Kendal A, Galiano W, Herrera A. 1998. Tracing 4,000 years of environmental history in the Cuzco area, Peru, from the pollen record. Mountain Research and Development. 18(2): 159-172.
Abugoch-James LE. 2009. Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa willd.) Composition, chemistry, nutritional, and functional properties. Advances in Food and Nutrition Research. 58:1-31.
Romero and Shahriari. 2011. Quinoa’s global success creates a quandary at home. New York Times. A6.