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Quinoa should be taking over the world. This is why it isn’t.

Stashed in: Plants!, Nutrition!, Freakonomics, Business Facts, Food Industry, Nutrition, Agriculture, Awesome, The More You Know!, Unintended Consequences, Kale, Nuts!

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Anyone who has tried to eradicate amaranth -- a common weed around here -- from their garden has probably wondered how the seed of the same plant has become a $12/lb delicacy called quinoa. The story is actually far more illuminating about the international market for foodstuffs than you'd think.

Yeah, it's fascinating that none of the U.S. Agriculture businesses think quinoa will be a staple.

All that infrastructure costs money, and the only farmers with lots of money are in industrial agribusiness. But U.S. industry has shown little interest in developing the ancient grain. Kellogg uses quinoa in one granola bar, and PepsiCo's Quaker Oats owns a quinoa brand, but the biggest grain processors--Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland--say they've got no plans to start sourcing it. Monsanto, the world's largest seed producer, has nothing either.

Instead, their research and development dollars are focused entirely on developing newer, more pest-resistant forms of corn, soybeans, wheat, sugar, and other staples. All of those crops have their own corporate lobbying associations, government subsidy programs, and academic departments devoted to maintaining production and consumption. Against that, a few researchers and independent farmers trying to increase quinoa supply don't have much of a chance.

"This is something where it would truly have to come from the demand side--no one wants to get into this and get stuck with all this excess inventory," says Marc Bellemare, an agricultural economist at Duke University. And how do you determine how much demand is enough, or whether a fad has staying power? "We still haven't fully unbundled what the decision bundle is. It's like shining a flashlight in a big dark room."

That's why it's hard for any new crop to make the transition from niche to mainstream. Products, maybe: Soy milk is ubiquitous now, after years as a marginal hippie thing, but it comes from a plant that U.S. farmers have grown for decades. An entirely new species is something else altogether. "I wouldn't even go so far as to say that's a non-staple that went big-time," Bellemare says.

For that reason, quinoa prices are likely to remain volatile for a long while yet. Brigham Young's Rick Jellen says the lack of research funding for quinoa--relative to the other large crop programs--means that even if they come up with a more versatile strain, it won't have the resilience to survive an infestation.

Until quinoa milk?

Didn't we determine that there's a world quinoa shortage and therefore that's unlikely?

But will quinoa demand make growing it more appealing?  Plus, the almond shortage has had no negative effect on almond milk demand.

One of the things I find most ridiculous about quinoa, besides the fact that it looks a lot like fish eggs in the middle of hatching, is that it is sold as being "high protein" and "lower carb". Allow me to drop some science on these foodies: one cooked cup of the stuff has almost exactly the same calories and carbs as brown rice, and a big 3 g more protein (8 vs 5) -- at about 10x the cost. 3 g of protein is less than half an egg, or one bite of steak. I crush more protein than that just from eating bugs while I ride my bike. If you're depending on QUINOA to provide your protein, you have bigger problems than nutrition... like thinking you're all about health and yet not being willing to take 2 minutes to read a food label.

Nutritional parity aside, quinoa provides agricultural benefits, not the least of which is  plant diversity.


I dig the plant diversity argument but I agree with Halibutboy: Quinoa is just fancy brown rice. 

Quinoa is used as a staple nutrition in poor South American communities that have it more readily available than rice. However with this spike in demand from Western countries, it has become too expensive for the lower class to afford and has actually contributed to a lower quality of life rather than an a supposed increase from exports.

That's really unfortunate. Is it really that difficult to increase the supply of quinoa in the world?

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