Quinoa (pronounced keen-oah, with the emphasis on the "keen") is called the "golden grain of the Incas" and the "Pride of Peru."
It is known for having exceptional nutritional qualities and for its adaptability to growing in numerous locations due to its rich biodiversity and variety of strains. The United Nations has decided to focus world attention on quinoa as a crop that can bring increased income to poor farmers and that can feed the poor and hungry of our world.
Thus, it has made 2013 the International Year of Quinoa. President Evo Morales of Bolivia, once a small-scale quinoa farmer himself, has been made an Ambassador to the UN by its Food and Agriculture Organization specifically for the purpose of promoting this extraordinary crop.
Quinoa is grown mostly in Central and South America — Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Honduras and Nicaragua. But other appropriate climates, such as in Georgia and Azerbaijan in southeastern Europe and Western Asia are also quinoa producers. It is thought to have been originally harvested wild and then grown domestically by the Incas along the high altitude, cool and dry Andean coastal regions of Chile. Quinoa dates back archeologically 7,000 years and was domesticated 4,000 years ago. In the Quechua language of the Andes, it was called the Mother Grain.
The quinoa grain contains large amounts of unsaturated fats, calcium, iron and phosphorus. As well, it has all the essential amino acids the body requires. It is a natural anti-inflammatory and lowers cholesterol. It is not only prized for its long history, but it has a celestial future, to be taken along on long-range space missions! To top it off, the Fair Spirits company has come out with a fair trade quinoa vodka, made from the harvested crops of Latin American farmers working co-operatively and now able to access markets previously unavailable for their crops.
The regions where quinoa is grown are also some of the poorest on our planet. Thus, support for these growers is a double benefit: to us in a healthy food and to them in new and sustainable income.
Of course, the fair trade certified system guarantees producers a fair price at a time when world "free" market prices are very low. As well, most fair trade crops are also organic or soft on the environment and bring a bonus economic and social boost to producer communities in the way of school or clinic construction, technical training and improved implements.
While quinoa was hardly heard of a decade ago, now it is available not only in health food stores, but also in chain and warehouse locations and is much in demand in North America, Europe, Australia and Japan. Canada’s growth in imports of quinoa grew 1,800 per cent in 2010! The Peruvian Ministry of Agriculture reports that quinoa exports have increased 500 per cent over the past four years. Quinoa is now a popular dish in international cooking competitions, so it has been recognized by those who are health conscious and also has become a trendy, celebrity choice.
Recent and future UN International Years complement 2013 as the Year of Quinoa. 2012 was designated the Year of the Co-operative and 2014 will be the Year of Family Farming. This showcases the United Nations’ concern with food security in our world as we come up to 2015, when it will take stock of how closely we’ve approached the UN Millennium Development Goals.
If you haven’t tried quinoa, it certainly can substitute for your normal use of rice, noodles or couscous. We frequently eat and enjoy it in our home.
So, Happy New Year and happy year of quinoa!
» Zack Gross works for the Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations active in our province.