There’s a disturbing pattern in what happens to South American Indians when their foods are “discovered” by European settlers, and it looks very similar to what happened when North and South American lands became understood as the “New World.” Indians get as little regard as chefs as they got as landlords.
The people indigenous to the Americas naturally lived on foods that found their way onto European plates at varying speeds.
The New World chocolate and vanilla are so popular some Europeans think they came from a chemistry laboratory in Europe rather than plants in the Americas. Corn, potatoes, squash and several kinds of beans caught on quickly, as did the nuts and berries and fruits and vegetables shared with early explorers by the local people who prospered from knowing how to find or cultivate them.
Some foods became popular more slowly, and so in the late 20th and early 21st centuries we still see indigenous “superfoods,” so-called because of their outstanding nutritional value.
The pattern goes back to First Contact, but it’s more visible now. First, the price spikes. In the abstract, this sounds like a boon to Native farmers, at least those Indians still own the land they farm. We’ve seen this localized agricultural boom often enough to worry about how much prosperity will trickle down to those from whom the food was “discovered.”
In recent years, we’ve seen goldenberries (Physalis peruviana) declared superfoods.
Maca (Lepidium meyenii) is another superfood with an additional commercial advantage in that it is good for erectile dysfunction.
The latest Indian staple to be dubbed a superfood by modern marketing is quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa). Like its relative, amaranth (genus Amaranthus and some 70 species), quinoa is called a pseudo-cereal. Neither are actually grains but rather edible seeds prepared and consumed in the same manner as cereals. Both contain over twice the protein of brown rice, oats or whole wheat.
Quinoa is named in the Quechua language, the most common of the many languages spoken by Indians in the Andes, where people have gathered quinoa for about 7,000 years and cultivated it for about 4,000 years. This is the “new” food that the settlers recently “discovered.”
The price spike happened. Quinoa used to fetch about $500 per metric ton. That price more than doubled by 2010 and it reached a high of $8,000 in 2014, perhaps because the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) declared 2013 to be the International Year of Quinoa. Marketing of superfoods has progressed far beyond Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.
This time, economists got involved in testing the proposition that popularity of a foodstuff prices it off the tables of the people who produce it. So far, the evidence says no.
Indians who work the land for wages have seen raises as production ramped up and made labor more scarce; those paid by shares did better more quickly. Smallholders who kept their land made out like bandits unless they overextended themselves during the price spike and could not repay debts incurred when the price came back to earth.
An unexpected result of the rising demand for quinoa was a lively competition to find the best methods of producing it. Bolivia stayed with tradition: organic cultivation by smallholders on rotated plots with llama dung the only fertilizer.
Peru took up factory farming, bringing in tractors (bought with U.S. aid) and replacing llama dung with chemical fertilizers. These methods result in the same environmental degradation in South America as they have in the United States.
Even organic Bolivian farmers have reduced the time land is allowed to recover before planting another quinoa crop, and moved quinoa down to flatter land to accommodate newly acquired tractors. Aid from the U.S. corporations Andean Naturals and Archer-Daniels-Midland paid for irrigation projects to increase the acreage devoted to quinoa.
Both Peru and Bolivia did their best to ramp up production and, as a result, quinoa prices quickly fell from the 2014 highs, moving some growers from rags to riches and now back to rags. So far, the biggest harm to the quinoa boom has been the blow to biodiversity. Indigenous farmers used to cultivate some 3,000 varieties of quinoa but now they concentrate on the handful that are sought after by the export market. Climate change will alter which varieties do best and so the long-range health of quinoa is best served by having all options available.
The final chapter of the recurring tale of “discovered” indigenous foods is when cultivation is moved elsewhere along with the economic benefits of the boom. That is happening, and now China, India, Nepal, the U.S. and Canada are all growing quinoa in commercial amounts.
Those who enjoy quinoa and wish to respect the indigenous origins of the new “superfood” should buy from South America. Those who support more traditional methods might want to look for Bolivian quinoa, understanding that “traditional” among South American Indians is just as slippery as it is in North America.
Those who try quinoa and don’t like it can take comfort from a remark in Forbes reminding us that, until recently, “fancy foods like quinoa…were completely unheard of. Yet people didn’t just drop like flies.”
If this latest indigenous superfood does not whet your appetite, be patient — history since the Spanish and Portuguese first inflicted themselves on our Southern cousins suggests that South American Indians have more superfoods waiting to be “discovered.”