A decade ago, quinoa (“keen-wa”) was just a little known South American grain touted by health food advocates for its plentiful amino acid composition and healthful nutritional components.

That soon changed, as many veggie proponents urged their followers to chow down on the once-obscure grain, which was only available at the time in exclusive (read, “expensive”) health food stores. Vegans embraced quinoa as a credible substitute for meat, given its relatively high protein content of about 15%.

Indeed, quinoa is a remarkable plant. The violet, crimson and orange flowering stalks growing in the semi-arid Bolivian highlands stand taller than the peasants who harvest the crop, mostly by hand. It can survive overnight frosts and searing summertime heat, necessary traits for a crop typically grown at altitudes as high as 10,000 feet where the air is as thin as the salt-laden soil.

Once a sacred crop for ancient Andean civilizations, its highly nutritious seeds caught the attention of dietary gurus and food marketers alike, and starting in the 1990s, demand skyrocketed across the developed world. In Europe, North America and more affluent Asian markets, a stampede led by chefs at trendy restaurants was on, and quinoa was soon available on supermarket shelves, in breakfast cereals, bakery products and even frozen food entrées.

According to a recent account in UK’s The Guardian newspaper, “Sales took off. Quinoa was, in marketing speak, the ‘miracle grain of the Andes,’ a healthy, ethical addition to the meat avoider’s larder (no dead animals, just a crop that doesn’t feel pain).”

Loss of land, water and food

But guess what? The surge in global demand nearly tripled its market price. Red royal quinoa now sells at about $4,500 a ton; the black variety can fetch $8,000 a ton. The result is that there is less quinoa available for the very people who have cultivated it for millennia, the indigenous populations of Bolivia and Peru.

“There are concerns this could cause malnutrition as producers, who have long relied on the so-called superfood to supplement their often limited diets, would rather sell their entire crop than eat it,” the story noted. “Rising prices have also triggered land disputes among native farmers.”

In other words, the good intentions of veggies and foodies who embraced quinoa have left poor people in Peru and Bolivia--for whom it was once a nourishing staple—unable to afford to eat it. Imported junk food is cheaper. In Lima, the Peruvian capital, quinoa now costs more than chicken. Throughout the rural areas of that country, the pressure is on to turn land that once produced a variety of native crops into a quinoa monoculture.

As the article explained, “In fact, the quinoa trade is yet another troubling example of a damaging north-south exchange, with well-intentioned health and ethics-led consumers here unwittingly driving poverty there. It’s beginning to look like a cautionary tale of how a focus on exporting foods deemed luxuries elsewhere can damage the producing country’s food security.”

That’s not the only offshoot of vegetarian appetites that’s causing economic and ecological damage. Peru has also cornered the world market in asparagus. The result is in the relatively arid region where Peruvian asparagus production is concentrated, production of the vegetable—solely for export—has depleted the water resources on which local farmers depend, just so we can enjoy this far-from-essential vegetable available outside of the North American growing season.

And that’s the fallacy of an all-vegetarian diet. Although veggie activists give lip service to the idea of “eating locally,” their cookbooks and websites are filled with recipes and rhetoric about the benefits of substituting imported products, such as quinoa, for locally raised animal foods and incorporating year-round “fresh” vegetables and fruits as dietary staples—all without bothering to confront the truth that jet-freighting produce round the world ain’t exactly kosher, ecologically speaking.

And now the quinoa story reminds us that eating whatever we like, as long as—God forbid—it didn’t come from an animal, is equally problematic, ethically speaking.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.