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OPINION: Quinoa is bad for the environment

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Quinoa is bad for the environment. Flickr photo by Marco Verch.

Quinoa may be good for you, but is it good for the environment? This was one of the many questions Paul Patton, assistant professor of anthropology and food studies, answered at this week’s Science Cafe. Opinion writer Haley Appelmann explains.

Baker University Center’s Front Room teemed with people as Patton held up a mysterious fruit the size and shape of a golf ball.

“Does anyone know what ancient humans were able to turn this plant into?” The crowd was silent.

Patton smiled. “This is where we get our modern-day jack-o-lantern.”

So how did humans transform a tiny gray squash into what we would today recognize as a big orange pumpkin? The answer is artificial selection, also known as domestication, which is the intentional breeding of plants and animals with certain desirable traits. Basically, it is the ancient way of genetic engineering.

Patton has been studying the legacy of domestication in Appalachian crops from over 3,800 years ago. There is a social urgency to look at Appalachia specifically for many reasons, all of them closer than we may realize.

The poverty rate in Athens county is 31.9 percent, the highest in the state of Ohio. It is estimated that 1 in 4 children in this county go to school hungry every day. It is not that these kids have no food. It is that the food has little to no nutritional value. The cheapest foods tend to be processed foods, and even our fruits and vegetables are lacking in fiber and protein compared to the fruits and vegetables of the past.

This is where it becomes important to look at the past. Many of the crops that humans who lived here long before us depended on have reverted back to their wild form. These days we rip these very same plants out of our gardens and spray them with herbicide in our farms.

One such plant is Chenopodium album, or lamb’s quarters. The crop, originally assumed to be native to Europe, was actually one of many plants developed by Ohio farmers in North America through artificial selection 5,000 years ago. Patton asked why we are killing a plant with significantly more protein and fiber to protect a plant, commonly known as corn, with much less to offer.

Lamb’s quarters used to be the staple crop for humans in what is now southeast Ohio. Not only was it adapted to the Ohio climate, but it did what food was supposed to do. It kept people full.

Nowadays, people are aware of the importance of protein and fiber in a healthy diet, and so those who can afford it are picking up foods such as quinoa, the “super ancient grain.” While quinoa is good for you, it can be hard to enjoy it once you know about the carbon footprint you’re making deeper and deeper with every bite.

Quinoa was first and best grown in places like Bolivia. As quinoa grows in popularity around the world, prices rise not just for people on the other side of the world but also for people who live in Bolivia, which has taken away the crop that was once their lifeline. And because it’s a long way from Bolivia to southeastern Ohio, efforts to introduce quinoa to Ohio farms have been unsuccessful, due in part to the humidity and hot summers.

Even if Americans succeed in growing quinoa at home, such as some already successful projects in Colorado, there is a chance that a global drop in prices could occur. This would further damage the farming infrastructure that many Andean communities rely on.

However, lamb’s quarters, along with many other “weeds,” grow great here and help to restore the soil instead of depleting it. That means better nutrition, less guilt and less money.

If you’re wondering what lamb’s quarters tastes like, Patton described it as, “just like quinoa.” This is perhaps unsurprising when you learn the scientific name of quinoa, Chenopodium quinoa. Sound familiar? Quinoa and lamb’s quarters happen to be in the same genus of Chenopodium, or “goosefoot.”   

Of course not everyone can be a farmer, or an anthropologist, or a food scientist, but there are small ways for everyone to help the environment and their fellow human beings. After all, everyone has to eat.  

So the next time you’re at the grocery store, maybe put back that quinoa for some produce from your local farmers. One day lamb’s quarters may be readily available at your local grocery store, but until then we can at least start to send the message that we want food that is easy on our stomachs, easy on our earth and easier on our fellow human beings.

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