What's quinoa's carbon footprint?

Q. I’m recently obsessed with quinoa—which, apparently, is the only grain that’s a perfect protein—but before I get totally addicted, I wanted to find out if it’s a relatively sustainable grain to eat. How much water/energy/pesticides go into raising this food of the gods? – Charles, WA

A. There isn’t much information available about how various grains stack up in terms of water use, land use, and carbon footprint, so we turned to food footprint expert Laura Stec, author of Cool Cuisine: Taking the Bite Out of Global Warming.

Who confirmed that there isn’t much information out there on how grains stack up against each other. Sorry, Charlie.

“Good luck getting anybody to talk about whether quinoa has a lower carbon footprint than, say, millet or rice,” said Stec. “Those types of studies take a long time and we’re only just starting to get some of the comparisons. It was only a year ago that people were starting to get numbers on beef versus chicken, chicken versus vegetables.”

But while we can’t (yet) offer you any of those statistics we treehuggers love so much, we can offer you some big-picture advice from Stec: Take a step back, introduce diversity into your diet whenever possible, experiment in the kitchen to find out which healthy whole grains you like best, and use those grains to replace some of the meat in your diet. According to a 2006 study conducted by the UN, the livestock industry is responsible for a whopping 20% of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.

So if quinoa rocks your world—and by the way, yes, it’s the only complete protein in the plant kingdom—enough that you’d be willing to replace some of the meat or fish in your diet with it, then do it up like whoa. In addition to being a complete protein, quinoa is high in vitamin B, calcium, iron, and amino acids. Plus, it’s gluten free, which makes it easy to digest and a safe bet for any dinner party or potluck.

What you should try not to do, says Stec, is get so caught up in carbon counting that you lose sight of the bigger picture. “I hope that people don’t get crazed about the carbon count,” she says. “We need eaters to learn about their food, learn how to use it, cut down on meat consumption, and eat more grains.” It’s like Michael Pollan says: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

-         Tobin Hack

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I was very happy to find a discussion on quinoa's carbon footprint and thought that I could share some of our knowledge in the area. We work with over 200 small family farms in the Andes and are one of the US's main importers of organic quinoa. We are focused on sustainability, so we have researched the subject in depth.

Sustainability- the god news:
80% of organic quinoa in the U.S. comes from Bolivia. This quinoa is not genetically modified and is the same seed that has been planted in the Andes for more than 4,000 years. So it's been around for a while. Also, the farmers are small family farms who do not use artificial fertilizers or pesticides. They chase butterflies with nets and use llama dung to fertilize. They have 4 year rotations and only use rainfall for irrigation. The land that quinoa uses cannot sustain any other commercial crop. Most of the Bolivian quinoa grows at 12,000 feet of altitude in an arid, cold and salty soil (at the edge of the Uyuni Salt Flats).

I agree with the advice given. Eating quinoa is more sustainable than eating meat. It is also very healthy- with a very similar protein and in addition the minerals and fiber.

The bad news on quinoa however (to show that we are really sincere and not trying to push quinoa!) are:
- with the increased demand more quinoa is being planted with tractors rather than by hand. This is leading to soil erosion.
- farmers are rotating less, which is leading to poorer soils and lower yields
- farmers no longer have many llamas, which is creating a shortage of organic fertilizer and poorer soils
- quinoa has to travel from Bolivia all the way to the US in trucks and steamship lines, both of which pollute the environment

I hope this gives a better picture of the quinoa sustainability. All in all I think quinoa is a good choice.



I am the author of the book mentioned above in the article about quinoa and would love to hear more - possibly promote your business. Can you contact me directly ( Thanks. Laura Stec

Thanks Tobin for this great article. I also use to find lots of specific quinoa recipes.