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.”

Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008