My Professor was Murdered Bringing Quinoa to America: The Human Cost of Pleasing the American Palate

Written by Eileen Reedy Kent

 Courtesy of Thinkstock

Courtesy of Thinkstock

Most people don’t know that some of the organic, “miracle” foods we consume today are stained with American blood. My 42 year old professor was murdered bringing the now ubiquitous and famous quinoa to the United States. His wife and child had to retrieve his gunshot-riddled body from Bolivia, the home country of the celebrated high protein grain. Professor Dave Cuzack had a deep interest in high protein alternatives to meat but an even greater compassion for the indigenous peoples of the Andes and wanted to help them economically. He gave his life for this cause.

Quinoa was initially domesticated about 7,000 years ago in the Andean highlands and eventually became known as the "mother grain" of the Incans. However, when the Spanish came to conquer, this high protein, relative of spinach, fell out of favour and was never fully domesticated to become commercially viable. In 1982, when my Professor first obtained his PhD and became interested in quinoa, it was still a local, Andean crop often consumed as a Slurpee type drink by locals descendants of the Incans who call it chisiya (“mother grain”).The Incans instinctively knew it was healthy. A nutritional analysis in the US has shown that it has a very high-protein content, is cholesterol-free and low in fat. In addition, quinoa is fairly low in calories, high in iron and fiber and is also an excellent source of magnesium.

The actual breakdown of nutrients in 1 cup of cooked quinoa is as follows;

·       8.14 g protein

·       39.41 g carbohydrates

·       31 mg calcium

·       2.76 mg iron

·       318 mg potassium

·       13 mg sodium

·       2.02 mg zinc

·       118mg magnesium

Recently, NASA announced that quinoa is so nutrient rich grain that they are considering it as a staple food for extended space travel.

In 1984, when I was finishing my Degree in Environmental Conservation at the University of Colorado in Boulder, CO, I was approached by Professor Cuzack who needed an intern. He insisted that I call him Dave. The tall, lanky, bespectacled man was friendly and passionate about his work and I needed an internship so, our partnership was formed.

He had found out through school records, that I lived on the high plains of Colorado, about an hour east of the campus (a gnarly, yet economically necessary, daily commute for me). He wanted an intern who could try to grow quinoa on their property and I was game so I struggled, and semi-succeeded, in making this South America loving grain live in my dry back yard! I had the red quinoa variety which struggled as thin stalks in my back yard all summer long

Half way through my internship I got a call from Dave’s partner Steve Gorad, at Sierra Blanca Associates, the nonprofit Dave had founded. He told me that my professor had been gunned down retrieving Quinoa seed from the Bolivian forest. At the time, I was told that they thought he had stumbled into a marijuana patch and an angry farmer had shot him but it gradually emerged that the his staff believed that the real reason was that the CIA had murdered him due to his knowledge of the US plans to overthrow the government and install Pinochet in neighbouring Chile. Dave, fluent in Spanish, had excellent relationships with the Bolivians who opposed Pinochet as well. He shared with them concerns over the many individuals from Chilie to Bolivia who were “disappeared” by Pinochet so; it was possible that Pinochet targeted him as well. Sadly, his widow and the rest of us will never know for sure

I could not graduate without his signature on my internship paperwork, so had to go through a process with the university which was both time consuming, worrisome and tinged with sadness over the loss of my idealistic professor.

His partner later told me that many of the seeds Dave had brought back prior to his death were ironically, eaten by mice in Dave’s garage.

Every time I see quinoa in its latest incarnation, from the chocolate covered type to the salad bar variety to the “new “quinoa chips, I think of Dave Cusack and the price he paid for our palates and for his love of the Bolivian people. He would be very pleased indeed to see how quinoa has been embraced by everyone from vegans to omnivores and to learn that new, more adaptable and less expensive varietals of quinoa are being developed so that it will be a more affordable protein source for everyone. He would also be glad to learn that the economic benefits to the Bolivians from their ancient grain continue as he did love them so. Perhaps, he would even be hearted to know that I became a vegetarian immediately following his death and eat quinoa on a weekly basis.

For a great Quinoa recipe, click here