Connect with us

Tech

The quinoa evangelist

Published

on

Steve Gorad portrait


In the early 1970s, Steve Gorad ’63 had a successful career as a clinical psychologist. He was in charge of the alcohol unit at Boston State Hospital and had a private practice, but he was restless. “It wasn’t enough,” he says. “I was a long-haired hippie writing [draft exemption] letters for people who didn’t want to go to Vietnam. I had doubts about what we really knew about psychology. I was a seeker.” So when Gorad’s boss at the hospital refused to give him time off to attend a 40-day spiritual workshop organized by a group called Arica, he quit. He immersed himself in Arica, turned his home in Boston’s South End into a commune, and traveled throughout Latin America. “My response to most everything during those years was to say yes,” he recalls.

While living in Chile, Gorad visited Bolivia. There he encountered quinoa, a grain considered peasant food in Latin America and relatively unknown elsewhere at the time. He was struck by its taste, and intrigued when told of its nutritional value. He began to study quinoa on frequent trips to the high-altitude region of Bolivia, called the Altiplano, where it’s widely grown, and by reading scientific papers. He learned that quinoa plants are often resilient even in the face of drought, flooding, and frost. He learned, too, that quinoa’s protein content is unusually high, ranging from 16 to 21% (compared with less than 14% for wheat and roughly 7.5% for rice). He also found that it contains all the “essential” amino acids—those that must come from food because the body can’t make them on its own—in proportions close to the nutritionally ideal ratio. “This makes the quality of quinoa protein roughly equivalent to that of milk (casein) or egg (albumin), without any of the disadvantages of coming from an animal source,” he has written. (Gorad credits MIT for giving him the tools to evaluate the science behind these nutritional claims. “MIT taught me the scientific method,” he says. “I can’t just accept claims because I’m told about them. I need to see proof, and that has served me throughout life—and certainly when it came to quinoa.”)

“I just had a sense that if I left the orderly path, my life wasn’t going to collapse. It would open into something else more exciting. And that is what happened.”

In the late 1970s, Gorad and two partners explored the possibility of importing quinoa into the United States. James Silver, who was the head of purchasing at Erewhon West, a natural foods company in Los Angeles, recalls hearing their pitch and realizing that quinoa’s nutritional properties made it an alluring product. “Quinoa wasn’t available in the US when they began this, at least not in any commercial sense. Certainly in the natural foods industry it did not exist,” Silver says. When Gorad and his partners founded Quinoa Corporation, in 1983, “they were the first, and for a very long time the only, importers of quinoa in the US.”

Gorad and his partners brought passion to their venture. “We were on a mission for quinoa,” he says, adding that in the early days they met with shoppers at natural food markets, handed out fliers, and “served little paper cups of cooked quinoa.” They sold small amounts of the grain with this approach but faced challenges in scaling up and securing a supply to import. Much of the grain available required extensive cleaning because it was “full of stones, dirt, dust, plant particles, pieces of metal, glass, unidentifiable objects, and even rodent feces,” Gorad recalls. (Eventually, Quinoa Corporation developed a relationship with the tea company Celestial Seasonings and used its industrial-scale machinery, including gravity tables, to clean the product.)

One year into the business, tragedy struck. One of Gorad’s partners, David Kusack, took an afternoon off from meeting with potential suppliers to visit an archaeological site in Bolivia; while sitting on a hilltop, he was shot in the back. His death was ruled a probable botched robbery, but theories abounded: it was a case of mistaken identity, business interests were threatened by quinoa farmers banding together, the CIA was behind it, quinoa was cursed. Whatever the cause, Gorad was devastated. “That almost stopped the project,” he says.

Quinoa Corporation persisted but continued to face turmoil. For a time, the company worked with the large natural foods distributors Eden Foods and Arrowhead Mills. But then these companies began to repackage the grain under their own names, ultimately finding their own Latin American suppliers and severing ties with Gorad and his partners. Their business struggled financially, even as the grain became more widely known. “Quinoa Corporation never had the money to do everything we needed to do,” Gorad recalls. “Not once did we place an ad or commercial for quinoa. What we did was make banners and little red buttons that simply said, ‘Quinoa is here.’ That was it.” 

CELESTE SLOMAN

In 1986, Australia’s Great Eastern International bought Quinoa Corporation, offering an infusion of capital that allowed the business to expand and distribute the grain in the US. Gorad and his partners purchased equipment to process quinoa, hired more workers, and spent their reserves on a large shipment of the grain. They had overestimated demand, however, and the company once again hit hard times. In early 1988, Gorad resigned “in order to lessen the financial burden on the company,” he says. Even so, he continued to evangelize for quinoa. “I never felt I was taking myself out of the mission, out of the flow of things that needed to happen,” he says.

Over time, he watched quinoa’s popularity increase. Between 2007 and 2013, the amount imported into the US increased tenfold, from 7 million pounds to almost 70 million. Much of it came from Bolivia and Peru, both of which saw a sevenfold increase in quinoa exports between 2005 and 2013. The United Nations declared 2013 the “International Year of Quinoa” to recognize the work of indigenous farmers in the Andes who cultivated the grain. José Graziano de Silva, then director general of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, proclaimed quinoa “an ally in the fight against hunger and food insecurity,” thanks to its nutritional benefits and ability to thrive under sometimes harsh agricultural conditions. It was also hailed as a promising crop in a world facing climate change. 

The surge in demand led to drastic changes for indigenous farmers in the Andes. A pound of the grain, which sold for a mere 25 cents in 2000, began to command prices as high as $4. Anthropologist Emma McDonell has noted that this income allowed many farmers, who had lived at subsistence levels, to “send their children to university, invest in new motorcycles and cars, build new houses, and buy farming technology to increase their harvests.” As the boom continued, however, small farmers faced mounting competition from larger operations, including global agribusiness concerns. By 2014, the price of quinoa had dropped to 60 cents a pound.

Newspaper accounts from the time also claimed that many farmers no longer ate the grain their families had grown for generations, opting instead for less-nutritious noodles and rice so they could export their quinoa. But Gorad disputes this. “Not all of the quinoa they produced was exportable,” he says; the farmers he knew had enough for their own families while still bringing in additional income. “These people were dirt poor,” he says. “When the price of quinoa was going up, a lot of wealth came to Bolivia, which desperately needed it.” 

Still, he acknowledges that the quinoa boom had its casualties. In some cases, farmers’ family members who had been working in the city came back to the farm to help out, he says. When the price dropped, those who had abandoned other work found themselves in trouble. “In individual cases, there are people who got messed up,” he says. “But the original farmers were still better off in the end than they would have been without the increased sales.” 

Gorad himself did not reap outsize profits from quinoa either. After leaving Quinoa Corporation, he consulted on various international projects, including an effort to bring quinoa to Tibet. As distribution widened and new varieties were cultivated, he distributed seeds and information to those interested in growing the grain in the US and abroad. “I think I did more work promoting quinoa after I left Quinoa Corporation,” he says. “I was no longer constrained by the need to work for the benefit of the company. I worked for quinoa!” This work was mostly a labor of love—for seven years, Gorad worked as a legal assistant for a friend in Manhattan in order to pay his bills. 

Today, Gorad lives in a Midtown skyscraper in New York, in the shadow of the Chrysler Building. He is retired and spends his days meditating and doing tai chi on the roof—a practice established long before covid-19 hit. (In fact, he sees the pandemic as an opportunity for the personal growth that comes with accepting change. Although ordinary life has been disrupted, “the bottom line is that we are still here, no matter what has been lost or changed,” he says.) He is quick to say that 20% of the apartments in his building are rent stabilized, including his, which he shares with a friend. “Quinoa didn’t make me rich,” he says. “I wasn’t a businessman and I am still not.”

pouring quinoa

CELESTE SLOMAN

Gorad is well aware of how unusual his life’s course has been, considering where he started. “I’m a Jewish kid from the Bronx. I’m a nerd,” he says. “Everything in my early life was programmed and planned. I just had a sense that if I left the orderly path, my life wasn’t going to collapse. It would open into something else more exciting. And that is what happened.” 

“I was using business to accomplish a mission,” he adds. “I learned that from Buckminster Fuller, who lectured at MIT: you should do what you do because it’s good for humanity.” 

In Gorad’s apartment, the kitchen and front hall closet are crammed with quinoa from all over the world: jars of pearly grains from Bolivia, packets of small white, red, and black grains, samples of a dark and sticky Canadian strain, almost like sticky rice. “I’ve been making cakes and breads with that,” he says, offering up a slice of a dark brown loaf that is dense and sweet. “I still feel that there’s no other food that’s as good to my body as quinoa.”


Steve Gorad’s Quinoa Corn Chowder

¼ cup quinoa
½ cup potato, cubed
2 Tbs carrot, diced
¼ cup onion, chopped
1 ½ cups corn kernels
2 cups water
2 cups milk
¼ cup parsley, chopped
Salt and black pepper to taste
Butter

Simmer quinoa, potato, carrot, and onion in water until soft (about 20 minutes). Add corn and simmer another 5 minutes. Add milk and bring just back to a boil. Season to taste. Add parsley and a bit of butter just before serving.


Steve Gorad’s Quinoa Corn Bread

2 cups corn meal
1 cup quinoa meal
1 tsp salt
½ tsp baking soda
1 ½ tsp baking powder
1 Tbs honey or brown sugar
1 large egg, beaten
3 Tbs melted butter
2 ½ cups buttermilk

Grind raw quinoa in a blender to make quinoa meal.
Mix wet ingredients together. Mix dry ingredients together. Combine the two. Bake in greased 9” x 9” pan or muffin tin at 425° F for about 25 minutes, or until golden brown.

Continue Reading

Tech

Why can’t tech fix its gender problem?

Published

on

From left to right: Gordon MOORE, C. Sheldon ROBERTS, Eugene KLEINER, Robert NOYCE, Victor GRINICH, Julius BLANK, Jean HOERNI and Jay LAST.


Not competing in this Olympics, but still contributing to the industry’s success, were the thousands of women who worked in the Valley’s microchip fabrication plants and other manufacturing facilities from the 1960s to the early 1980s. Some were working-class Asian- and Mexican-Americans whose mothers and grandmothers had worked in the orchards and fruit can­neries of the prewar Valley. Others were recent migrants from the East and Midwest, white and often college educated, needing income and interested in technical work. 

With few other technical jobs available to them in the Valley, women would work for less. The preponderance of women on the lines helped keep the region’s factory wages among the lowest in the country. Women continue to dominate high-tech assembly lines, though now most of the factories are located thousands of miles away. In 1970, one early American-owned Mexican production line employed 600 workers, nearly 90% of whom were female. Half a century later the pattern continued: in 2019, women made up 90% of the workforce in one enormous iPhone assembly plant in India. Female production workers make up 80% of the entire tech workforce of Vietnam. 

Venture: “The Boys Club”

Chipmaking’s fiercely competitive and unusually demanding managerial culture proved to be highly influential, filtering down through the millionaires of the first semiconductor generation as they deployed their wealth and managerial experience in other companies. But venture capital was where semiconductor culture cast its longest shadow. 

The Valley’s original venture capitalists were a tight-knit bunch, mostly young men managing older, much richer men’s money. At first there were so few of them that they’d book a table at a San Francisco restaurant, summoning founders to pitch everyone at once. So many opportunities were flowing it didn’t much matter if a deal went to someone else. Charter members like Silicon Valley venture capitalist Reid Dennis called it “The Group.” Other observers, like journalist John W. Wilson, called it “The Boys Club.”

The men who left the Valley’s first silicon chipmaker, Shockley Semiconductor, to start Fairchild Semiconductor in 1957 were called “the Traitorous Eight.”

WAYNE MILLER/MAGNUM PHOTOS

The venture business was expanding by the early 1970s, even though down markets made it a terrible time to raise money. But the firms founded and led by semiconductor veterans during this period became industry-defining ones. Gene Kleiner left Fairchild Semiconductor to cofound Kleiner Perkins, whose long list of hits included Genentech, Sun Microsystems, AOL, Google, and Amazon. Master intimidator Don Valentine founded Sequoia Capital, making early-stage investments in Atari and Apple, and later in Cisco, Google, Instagram, Airbnb, and many others.

Generations: “Pattern recognition”

Silicon Valley venture capitalists left their mark not only by choosing whom to invest in, but by advising and shaping the business sensibility of those they funded. They were more than bankers. They were mentors, professors, and father figures to young, inexperienced men who often knew a lot about technology and nothing about how to start and grow a business. 

“This model of one generation succeeding and then turning around to offer the next generation of entrepreneurs financial support and managerial expertise,” Silicon Valley historian Leslie Berlin writes, “is one of the most important and under-recognized secrets to Silicon Valley’s ongoing success.” Tech leaders agree with Berlin’s assessment. Apple cofounder Steve Jobs—who learned most of what he knew about business from the men of the semiconductor industry—likened it to passing a baton in a relay race.

Continue Reading

Tech

Predicting the climate bill’s effects is harder than you might think

Published

on

Predicting the climate bill’s effects is harder than you might think


Human decision-making can also cause models and reality to misalign. “People don’t necessarily always do what is, on paper, the most economic,” says Robbie Orvis, who leads the energy policy solutions program at Energy Innovation.

This is a common issue for consumer tax credits, like those for electric vehicles or home energy efficiency upgrades. Often people don’t have the information or funds needed to take advantage of tax credits.

Likewise, there are no assurances that credits in the power sectors will have the impact that modelers expect. Finding sites for new power projects and getting permits for them can be challenging, potentially derailing progress. Some of this friction is factored into the models, Orvis says. But there’s still potential for more challenges than modelers expect.

Not enough

Putting too much stock in results from models can be problematic, says James Bushnell, an economist at the University of California, Davis. For one thing, models could overestimate how much behavior change is because of tax credits. Some of the projects that are claiming tax credits would probably have been built anyway, Bushnell says, especially solar and wind installations, which are already becoming more widespread and cheaper to build.

Still, whether or not the bill meets the expectations of the modelers, it’s a step forward in providing climate-friendly incentives, since it replaces solar- and wind-specific credits with broader clean-energy credits that will be more flexible for developers in choosing which technologies to deploy.

Another positive of the legislation is all its long-term investments, whose potential impacts aren’t fully captured in the economic models. The bill includes money for research and development of new technologies like direct air capture and clean hydrogen, which are still unproven but could have major impacts on emissions in the coming decades if they prove to be efficient and practical. 

Whatever the effectiveness of the Inflation Reduction Act, however, it’s clear that more climate action is still needed to meet emissions goals in 2030 and beyond. Indeed, even if the predictions of the modelers are correct, the bill is still not sufficient for the US to meet its stated goals under the Paris agreement of cutting emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2030.

The path ahead for US climate action isn’t as certain as some might wish it were. But with the Inflation Reduction Act, the country has taken a big step. Exactly how big is still an open question. 

Continue Reading

Tech

China has censored a top health information platform

Published

on

China has censored a top health information platform


The suspension has met with a gleeful social reaction among nationalist bloggers, who accuse DXY of receiving foreign funding, bashing traditional Chinese medicine, and criticizing China’s health-care system. 

DXY is one of the front-runners in China’s digital health startup scene. It hosts the largest online community Chinese doctors use to discuss professional topics and socialize. It also provides a medical news service for a general audience, and it is widely seen as the most influential popular science publication in health care. 

“I think no one, as long as they are somewhat related to the medical profession, doesn’t follow these accounts [of DXY],” says Zhao Yingxi, a global health researcher and PhD candidate at Oxford University, who says he followed DXY’s accounts on WeChat too. 

But in the increasingly polarized social media environment in China, health care is becoming a target for controversy. The swift conclusion that DXY’s demise was triggered by its foreign ties and critical work illustrates how politicized health topics have become. 

Since its launch in 2000, DXY has raised five rounds of funding from prominent companies like Tencent and venture capital firms. But even that commercial success has caused it trouble this week. One of its major investors, Trustbridge Partners, raises funds from sources like Columbia University’s endowments and Singapore’s state holding company Temasek. After DXY’s accounts were suspended, bloggers used that fact to try to back up their claim that DXY has been under foreign influence all along. 

Part of the reason the suspension is so shocking is that DXY is widely seen as one of the most trusted online sources for health education in China. During the early days of the covid-19 pandemic, it compiled case numbers and published a case map that was updated every day, becoming the go-to source for Chinese people seeking to follow covid trends in the country. DXY also made its name by taking down several high-profile fraudulent health products in China.

It also hasn’t shied away from sensitive issues. For example, on the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia in 2019, it published the accounts of several victims of conversion therapy and argued that the practice is not backed by medical consensus. 

“The article put survivors’ voices front and center and didn’t tiptoe around the disturbing reality that conversion therapy is still prevalent and even pushed by highly ranked public hospitals and academics,” says Darius Longarino, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center. 

Continue Reading

Copyright © 2021 Seminole Press.