I was recently in Mugu and was saddened to observe that rice has become part of the staple diet there. When I asked local people there why they did not eat locally produced cereals, many of them answered “People have become lazy. Since they get rice from the World Food Program, no one wants to grow millet, barley or quinoa (locally known as chinu). Here people are ashamed of eating locally produced food.” Upon hearing those words, I wanted to tell them that quinoa is consumed by rich and influential people in Western countries, even people like the former US President Bill Clinton. But I did not, as I knew it would have been futile to lecture people who have been “brainwashed” by the policy of the Planning Commission that has been distributing “white rice” in the name of food security.
I do not blame people in Mugu or any other part of the Karnali region for this misconception. Their political leaders tell them that to reduce hunger, they will demand more rice from the government. If political leaders were aware that Quinoa is more nutritious than rice, perhaps they would not have made those promises. Quinoa has an almost perfect ratio of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, but in Karnali, the government ignores this food and instead gives children imported foods.
Eventually I met with political leaders in Mugu. When I encouraged them to ask the government and Planning Commission to stop bringing rice to their district, they told me that doing so would be a disaster. “Although we know that locally-grown cereals are better than rice, people have now acquired a taste for rice. They think rice is good for them. We have to promise to bring them rice. If we ask them to eat quinoa or millet instead, we risk losing the election.”
If political leaders of Karnali had known that the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) had officially declared the year 2013 “The International Year of Quinoa” maybe they would have changed their minds. Maybe they would have told the Planning Commission that they do not require rice, they have their own super grains. Maybe they would have demanded better roads and hospitals instead, which would benefit people of Karnali more than the rice.
Unfortunately, no one has provided them with such valuable information. The Planning Commission continues to send them white rice, which has resulted in hunger, destruction of local crops, and dependency.
It is well known that quinoa is an eco-friendly, highly nutritious and versatile “super-food”. But this super food is ignored and even hated by the local people. Instead, they run after cereals that are much less nutritious, and are paying a heavy price for this: poor health, loss of money, and loss of cultural identity.
A few months ago I was at a nutrition-related training in New Delhi, during which trainers spoke very highly of this grain. When I told them that quinoa is produced in the remotest parts of Nepal and that in those places, there is much hunger and starvation, the trainer remarked that therein lies the paradox—widespread prevalence of starvation right in the heart of the area where such nutritious food is produced. The trainer added that there is something wrong with the government policy. I believe he was right. Quinoa is a food which is far superior to many other grains, with high levels of protein. If the government listened to the voice of those in Karnali, encouraged them to consume local products and helped them with production, the health status of that region would be far different.
Will the political leaders in Karnali and policy makers in Kathmandu understand the value of this super food in time?
The author, a medical doctor by profession, writes on food issues