Bob’s Red Mill is an American company that sells all types of grains, including this review’s organic whole grain quinoa. Quinoa has been hailed as a superfood in recent years, advertised as exotic, healthy, and even anti-aging. Indeed, quinoa itself is a nutrient-dense food that is environmentally efficient, but the associated packaging and transportation processes are not as sustainable. Another greater concern is social and ethical problems caused by unfair trading. Although Bob’s Red Mill has been taking small steps to address environmental justice, a lot more has to be done to achieve sustainability.
Calling quinoa a ‘superfood’ is definitely not an overstatement. Quinoa has lots of health benefits, including high protein, fibre, vitamin, and antioxidant levels. Being rich in protein makes quinoa a good alternative to carbon-intensive meat. When compared to a pork sausage of the same weight, despite having the same protein content, quinoa’s carbon footprint is only 20% of sausage, making quinoa much more friendly to our climate. More commonly, quinoa is used to substitute rice. Quinoa requires five times less water, but still beats rice in dietary fibre and mineral levels. Quinoa is environmentally much more efficient than many of its alternatives.
Packaging and transportation
The quinoa is packed in Bisphenol A (BPA)-free polyester and polyethylene plastic. BPAs are known to disrupt our hormonal functions, so I am glad to know using these plastics will not mess with my health. However, mother nature may not be as happy with the wrappers. Polyester and polyethylene are produced by mixing crude oil and water and the extraction of crude oil through fracking leaks toxic chemicals to the air and groundwater, harming natural habitats. Plastics are also not biodegradable, taking over 450 years to break down entirely. Birds, fish, and all kinds of animals often mistake plastic debris for food, filling their stomach with toxic substances.
The transportation processes also contribute to carbon emissions and environmental degradation. Bob’s quinoa comes from Peru and Bolivia, the Andean highlands in South America. Although Bob’s does not reveal the size of its carbon footprint involved in transportation, I can imagine a high emission level caused by shipping the materials from South America to international markets. Bob’s defended its decision to source South American quinoa by explaining that it only uses quinoa of the highest quality. However, since Bob’s main market is in North America, I believe that local US farms are able to provide quality quinoa as well. Quinoa is grown in Colorado, the Pacific Northwest, Idaho, and Northern California. Bob’s can consider purchasing from local sources, hence supporting local economies and cutting transport emissions.
Bob’s whole grain quinoa is organically grown, meaning it is grown “without toxic or synthetic fertilisers, GMOs, antibiotics, synthetic growth hormones or artificial preservatives, flavours or colours”. Organic farming preserves soil health, water quality, and improves biodiversity by reducing the risk of humans, animals, and the environment being exposed to toxic chemicals. All quinoa is also harvested by hand, reducing the use of heavy machines and reduces soil compaction and land degradation.
However, Bob’s quinoa is not certified fair trade. Although Bob’s Red Mill claims that growing quinoa can improve South American’s economy and welfare, these benefits are only guaranteed if the trade is fairly conducted. In fact, while Bob’s sells its quinoa at about 11 USD/kg, an Andean quinoa producer on average only receives about 1.22 USD/kg. The majority of the profit is divided among agents and distributors. Bolivia remains to be one of the poorest countries in South America.
Quinoa has always been used for domestic consumption in South America. The recent ‘discovery’ of quinoa’s high nutritional value by the Western world has led quinoa to become a commercial crop and consequently caused a surge in its market price. From 2000 to 2019, the market price of quinoa experienced a six-fold increase. Coupled with the fact that small quinoa farmers are earning less due to unfair trades, the farmers can no longer afford their everyday food anymore. On their plates is cheaper, yet less nutritious foods such as maize - the food we reject in favour of quinoa.
The rising demand for quinoa has also led to environmental degradation. Many farmers are shifting from traditional crop rotation to large-scale monoculture to increase yield and keep up with the global market. The standardisation in land use causes genetic homogeneity, making the crop more vulnerable to bacterial mutations, nutrient depletion , and harvest failure. The rapid expansion of quinoa farming and the entry of new producers also threatens the ecological stability and social integrity of local communities.
The Andean farmers are faced with the challenges of increasing production to meet the global market while safeguarding biodiversity and securing domestic needs. As consumers, we should be more aware of unfair trading’s consequences and not turn a blind eye to the social and environmental justice issues it raises. Yes, fair-trade quinoa may be more expensive, but paying the fair price comes with being part of the solution. Bob’s Red Mill has pledged fair trade with its coconut products, so why not extend it to quinoa as well? I urge Bob’s to source sustainably and ensure that the food it sells is made with integrity.
Bob’s Red Mill is dedicated to “nourishing a healthy planet”. It partnered with Energy Trust of Oregon on improving energy efficiency through things like installing onsite solar panels to provide renewable energy for its operations. It also reduces food waste by donating leftovers to ‘Meals on Wheels’ and ‘Oregon Food Bank’. I am glad to see Bob’s Red Mill committed to reducing its environmental impact through company-wide collaborations.
Another thing I acknowledge about the company is its employee stock ownership plan. This means that Bob’s Red Mill is 100% employee-owned. Workers get to take their share of the company’s success. Not only does the increase in employee engagement improves workers’ morale, but it also leads to greater company productivity and profitability.
Last but not least, as previously touched upon, I appreciate Bob’s partnering with Fair Trade USA to support coconut farmers. Fair trade generates funds to support school feeding programmes, scholarships, and coconut replanting. I applaud Bob’s effort to assist farming communities. However, I urge Bob’s to expand its support to quinoa and other products. In the meantime, as responsible, eco-conscious consumers, try looking for packaging with Fair Trade logos! It is crucial for us to use our consumer power to support farmers from less developed regions to get what they deserve. This way, we can continue to consume any food without guilt.