Not keen on quinoa

(Ord River irrigation scheme photo by Laurel Wilson)

I have a couple of issues with the alternative health world’s high-protein saviour, quinoa (pronounced keen-wah). There was the time we were travelling around Australia and got invited to lunch by vegan friends.

Some 12 hours later came a coincidental 24-hour bug, where I woke at 2am immediately looking for a bucket; the kind of ‘lurgy’ you pick up from feral roadside dunnies. So yes, the taste, smell and texture of quinoa still causes an initial revulsion, much like when you’ve been spreading horse poo around the fruit trees and no matter how many times you wash your hands, you can still smell it.

Don’t get me wrong, I can eat quinoa – it goes well in salads, as it tends to fall to the bottom so you can leave the little seeds if you can’t scoop them up with a fork. Quinoa is a high-protein pseudo-grain popular with people who suffer from coeliac disease or those diagnosed as gluten intolerant (two different ailments would you believe?) Quinoa, which used to be exclusively grown in the Peruvian Andes, is now being grown, experimentally or not, in at least 10 different countries, including Australia.

Quinoa is variously described as fluffy, creamy and slightly crunchy, a substitute for rice and other cereals. A grain-like crop with edible seeds, it belongs to the spinach and beetroot family.

All kinds of people eat quinoa (and other grain substitutes like amaranth), including vegetarians, vegans, those who have issues with gluten and of course ladies who lunch and want to be with the in-crowd.

Here lies the second issue with quinoa – its consumption by people who don’t have a genuine health reason for eating it. Popularity in the west has led to a quadrupling of price, making it scarce and expensive for the Peruvians and Bolivians who have grown up using it as a staple.

Quinoa has caught the attention of commodity brokers, as per a report produced in 2015 by NAB’s agri-business economist Phin Ziebell highlighting it as an ‘emerging commodity’.

Prices in Bolivia and Peru sat around 45 to 50 cents per kilogram through the 1990s but a surge in global consumption from 2008 onwards pushed the price as high as $US6.50/kg in 2015.

As is the way with commodities, there is a supply and demand cycle. By early 2015 the price had dropped to $3.40/kg.

Our local co-op sells organic white quinoa for $12.95 a kilo and the organic red version at $20.95 per kilo. That might seem like some kind of mark-up, but you have to factor in the cost of growing, harvesting, refining, storing and exporting, not to mention meeting the export market’s GF criteria.

Quinoa marketing and business consultancy Mercadero says falling prices are having an impact on the fledgling grower markets. At the beginning of 2015, wholesale prices above US$5,000 per US ton ($5.51/kg) were common. In the last quarter of 2015, import prices of organic white quinoa fell to about US$2,300 per US ton ($2.53/kg), while conventional quinoa was sold at US$2,000 per US ton ($2.20/kg) or less.

While this is bad news for new producers, Mercadero says consumers have not yet benefited much from the lower trade prices. “…when they trickle down, the superfood will become much more affordable, spurring further market growth.”

So are we growing it here?

Last year the EC imported 20,362 tons from Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, while European growers produced 7,000 tons, the majority grown in France. While the world in general relies heavily on the South American markets, quinoa is also being grown in the US and Canada.

Ziebell notes in his NAB commodities report that in Australia, planting has been concentrated in Western Australia and to a lesser extent Tasmania. In Western Australia, trials have centred on Narrogin in the central WA wheat belt and Kununurra in the Ord River irrigation area.  Now there’s a surprise; when we were travelling in the Ord River region in 2014 it seemed every second tree in the irrigation zone was sandalwood, grown for its use in the perfume and incense industries.

Ziebell says cultivation of quinoa is at a trial stage only in Australia. Problems include weed control, poor tolerance of water-logging, a highly variable yield and a lack of transport and marketing arrangements.

Quinoa is traditionally harvested by hand in South America, but the highly mechanised Australian model could cause problems in the future. Ziebell says the shared use of headers and silos used for wheat may cause cross-contamination and pose gluten free certification problems.

So why don’t we get a tax break?

She Who Eschews Gluten on Suspicion (more rational than that- Ed. aka SWEG)  has two cousins in Canada thus afflicted. One cousin was peeved to find he was not eligible for government subsidies because he discovered he was gluten intolerant by trial and error, while his brother was diagnosed and therefore eligible for government support.

It’s an expensive business, being unable to eat ‘normal’ food. A half decent loaf of gluten free bread can cost upwards of $7 or $8 and a packet of GF muesli can fetch up to $16.50 (which is why I make my own – Ed).

According to Coeliac UK, gluten free food has been available on prescription since the 1960s, although 30% of Clinical Commissioning Groups (who organise delivery of patient services in England) are now restricting or removing support for patients with coeliac disease, which is exacerbating health inequalities.

Patients receive generous tax rebates in countries including Canada, New Zealand and Ireland. In Italy, vouchers are available equivalent to 140 euros a month. In the US and elsewhere, patients must keep receipts and calculate the difference between the cost of gluten-free and the gluten-included equivalent. But at least they have a choice.

Coeliac Australia president Tom McLeod said there is no rebate for GF food for people with coeliac disease in Australia, although competition and a range of choices is helping to lower prices and make GF food more accessible.

“The only treatment for coeliac disease is a completely gluten free diet,” he told FOMM. “Coeliac Australia would welcome any move by the government to improve affordability of gluten free food for people with coeliac disease, or those medically requiring a gluten free diet.”

So forgive my earlier crack at people who adopt faddy diets. I do recognise that for some people, an appropriate diet can enhance their quality of life. Still, what’s with the six or seven varieties of salad greens at your typical supermarket? There was a time when you had (a) iceberg lettuce or (b) sorry, lettuce season’s finished. Now there’s a strange concept – eating fruit or vegetables in season as opposed to ‘fresh’ from the cold store.

Ah, the good old days, when you’d come home from school and get two thick slabs of white bread, slather them with lard and make a chip butty. Try and tell the young folk that today.