Quinoa Brings Riches to the Andes

A burst of colour on a monochromatic panorama, a field of flowering quinoa plants in the Bolivian desert is a thing of beauty. A plant ready for harvest can stand higher than a human, covered with knotty blossoms, from violet to crimson and ochre-orange to yellow.

Quinua real, or royal quinoa, flourishes in the most hostile conditions, surviving nightly frosts and daytime temperatures upwards of 40°C (104°F). It is a high-altitude plant, growing at 3,600 metres above sea level and higher, where oxygen is thin, water is scarce and the soil is so saline that virtually nothing else grows.

The tiny seeds of the quinoa plant are the stuff of nutritionists’ dreams, sending demand soaring in the developed world. Gram-for-gram, quinoa is one of the planet’s most nutritious foodstuffs. Once a sacred crop for some pre-hispanic Andean cultures, it has become a five-star health food for the middle classes in Europe, the US and increasingly China and Japan.

That global demand means less quinoa is being eaten in Bolivia and Peru, the countries of origin, as the price has tripled. There are concerns this could cause malnutrition as producers, who have long relied on the superfood to supplement their meagre diets, would rather sell their entire crop than eat it. The rocketing international price is also creating land disputes.

“Royal quinoa has given hope to people living in Bolivia’s most destitute and forgotten region,” says Paola Mejia, general manager of Bolivia’s Chamber of Quinoa Real and Organic Products Exporters.

Royal quinoa, which only grows in this arid region of southern Bolivia, is to the grain what beluga is to caviar; packed with even more protein, vitamins and minerals than the common variety.

Averaging $3,115 (£1,930) per tonne in 2011, quinoa has tripled in price since 2006. Coloured varieties fetch even more. Red royal quinoa sells at about $4,500 a tonne and the black variety can reach $8,000 per tonne. The crop has become a lifeline for the people of Bolivia’s Oruro and Potosi regions, among the poorest in what is one of South America’s poorest nations.

It is quinoa’s moment on the world stage. This year is the UN’s International Year of Quinoa as the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation recognises the crop’s resilience, adaptability and its “potential contribution in the fight against hunger and malnutrition”.

Evo Morales, the Bolivian leader whose government suggested the special recognition for the grain, said: “For years [quinoa] was looked down on just like the indigenous movement. To remember that past is to remember discrimination against quinoa and now after so many years it is reclaiming its rightful recognition as the most important food for life.”

However, there are concerns the 5,000 year-old ancestral crop is being eaten less by its traditional consumers: quinoa farmers. “They have westernised their diets because they have more profits and more income,” says Mejia, an agronomist. “Ten years ago they had only an Andean diet in front of them. They had no choice. But now they do and they want rice, noodles, candies, coke, they want everything!”

Daysi Munoz, who runs a La Paz-based quinoa farming collective, agrees. “As the price has risen quinoa is consumed less and less in Bolivia. It’s worth more to them [the producers] to sell it or trade it for pasta and rice. As a result, they’re not eating it any more.”

Bitter battles are being fought over prime quinoa-growing land. Last February dozens of people were hurt when farmers fought with slings and sticks of dynamite over what was once abandoned land.

Many people who migrated to cities in search of a better life are now returning to their arid homeland to grow royal quinoa, says Mejia. Most land is communally owned, she adds, so “the government needs to set out the boundaries or there will be more conflicts”.

In the village of Lacaya, near Lake Titicaca, the farmers have recently sown quinoa. It grows faster in the wetter conditions but the variety quinua dulce is less sought after than royal quinoa.

Under the perpendicular rays of the intense altiplano sun, Petrona Uriche’s face is heavily shadowed by her felt bowler hat. She says in the three years her village has been farming quinoa it has become the biggest earner. “We produce quinoa just for export, it’s more profitable,” she said. An 11.5 kg arroba sack of quinoa can fetch eight times more than it did a few years ago, “around $2 a kg”, she adds.

But the Bolivian government — which like its neighbour Peru is heavily promoting quinoa nationally to combat malnutrition — insists Bolivians are eating more of the grain. Annual consumption per person has increased fourfold from 0.35 kg to 1.11 kg in as many years “in spite of the high international prices”, Victor Hugo Vásquez, Bolivia’s Vice-Minister for rural development and agriculture, said.

Previous government figures, however, indicated domestic consumption had dropped by a third in five years.

Judging by the supermarket shelves in Bolivia’s de facto capital, La Paz, where quinoa-based products from pizza crusts and hamburgers to canapes and breakfast cereals are displayed, Bolivia’s growing middle class appear to be the principal consumers.

Meanwhile in the Peruvian capital, Lima, shoppers at food markets complain quinoa is becoming a luxury product. Selling at around 10 Peruvian soles per kg (£2.44) it costs more than chicken (7.8 soles per kg) and four times as much as rice. Official figures show domestic consumption has dropped.

“Unfortunately in poorer areas they don’t have access to products such as quinoa and it’s becoming more and more expensive,” Peru’s Vice-Minister for agriculture, Juan Rheineck, said at a breakfast for under-fives at the Casa de los Petisos children’s home in Lima. The children are fed boiled eggs and quinoa and apple punch, part of a government programme to promote nutritious breakfasts. “That’s what we have to avoid, we have to produce better and more,” he said.

Peru’s government cut chronic malnutrition in under-fives nationally to 16.5 percent in 2011 but it is still widely prevalent in poorer Andean regions. According to the World Bank, 27.2 percent of under-fives in Bolivia suffered chronic malnutrition in 2008.

Peru’s telegenic First Lady, Nadine Heredia, is championing a colourful campaign to promote the Andean diet, of which quinoa is a key element, to combat infant malnutrition. In 2012 Peru banked nearly $35 million from quinoa exports, tripling what it earned three years ago. In Bolivia exports tripled to around 23,000 tonnes, contributing some $85 million to the country’s economy, Vásquez said.

But experts say both countries need to boost production to meet the rising external demand and provide the grain at lower prices for internal consumption. Bolivia, which produces nearly half the global supply, says it has given more than $5 million in credits to 70,000 quinoa producers and wants to industrialise production to bring added value rather than just exporting the raw material.

Hydrocarbons and minerals are Bolivia’s two key exports, but Mejia believes if the country aggressively promoted quinoa agriculture “in 10 years it could easily surpass the income from gas and minerals”.

What is quinoa?

Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd) is actually a “pseudo-grain”, not belonging to the true grass family but a member of the goosefoot plant family, which includes spinach and sugarbeet.

Its exceptional nutritional qualities led NASA to include it as part of its astronauts’ diet on long space missions. A 1993 NASA technical paper says: “While no single food can supply all the essential life sustaining nutrients, quinoa comes as close as any other in the plant or animal kingdom.”

Quinoa is the only plant food that contains all 10 essential amino acids for the human diet. Its protein content (between 14–18 percent) surpasses that of wheat, rice, maize and oats, and can be a substitute to animal protein. Its calorific value is greater than that of eggs and milk and comparable only to that of meat.

It is a source of vitamin E, vitamin B2 (riboflavin) and contains more minerals such as calcium, potassium, magnesium and phosphorus than other grains.

Recent research found quinoa contains phytoestrogens, which are said to prevent or reduce osteoporosis, arteriosclerosis, breast cancer and other conditions that can be caused by lack of oestrogen after menopause.

This article was originally published by the Guardian on 14 January 2013.

Copyright The Guardian. All rights reserved.

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Author

Dan Collyns

Multimedia Journalist

Dan Collyns is a British multimedia journalist based in Lima, Peru. His written, radio and TV reports have been published and broadcast internationally.

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  • Ruben Solvang

    In the article it reads that: “Quinoa is the only plant food that contains all 10 essential amino acids for the human diet. Its protein content (between 14–18 percent) surpasses that of wheat, rice, maize and oats, and can be a substitute to animal protein.

    I believe this statement is incorrect. Hemp seeds, although not a grain, does contain all 10 essential amino acids with a whooping 30% protein content.

    This is a quote from livingharvest.com:
    Hemp seeds are one of the plant kingdom’s best sources of
    easily digestible, high-quality protein. Proteins are among the body’s
    most essential nutrients, helping build and repair tissue and build lean
    muscle mass. 65% of hemp seeds’ protein is high-quality edestin, making
    them the highest vegan source of this simple protein that’s required
    for proper immune system function.

  • slgnunez

    Hi! Just wanted to contribute and provide some light here. We know the quinoa market quite well- it’s our specialty. As a Cetified B-Corp and a member of the FairTrade Federation, we measure our success on social and environmental metrics, so it is very important to us that the consumers are well informed so they can continue to make a difference with their purchases.

    As you read my comments below keep in mind that most of the quinoa (95%) is currently grown by small family farms. Most of them (all in the salt flat regions of Bolivia where the premium Royal Quinoa comes from) work on communally-owned lands. 65% of all imports into the U.S. are certified organic. Quinoa has allowed thousands of family farms to rise above poverty.

    Here are some errors on the article above and our comments:

    “Bolivia now exports nearly all of the staple crop”

    - I was born and raised in Bolivia. Quinoa has not been a staple crop there (or in Peru) since Colonial times. In Bolivia quinoa was considered a peasant food, mainly consumed by the Quinoa Real farmers who have no other crop options. It’s with all the promotion in export markets and the publicity from abroad that more Bolivians are looking into including more quinoa into their diets.

    Second, our figures come out to 55% exported to Northern markets and 26% to Peru. The balance, 19% stays in country, mainly consumed by the farmers and included now in government programs. The Bolivian government figures come close to our estimates. Note that Peru is a top consumer of quinoa.

    “The people who grow it can’t afford to eat it.”

    - Farmers have ready access to quinoa, they store it in their homes, and never sell their entire crop: they always keep reserves as insurance. They still consume a lot of quinoa, on average 2 cups (uncooked- which makes 6 cups) per family per day. The issue is not that they cannot afford quinoa, it is that they can now afford other foods, and because their education is limited, they tend to go for convenient foods- such as pasta and rice. They also make positive inclusions into their diets such as fruits and vegetables. Quinoa is a very difficult to eat as they have it- it takes them up to 2 hours to prepare (clean, toast, rub, wash, cook). Our company as part of its FairTrade program provides an exchange with the communities it works with: farmers can bring in up to 5% of their crop and it is returned to them washed and cleaned up to export standards- ready to cook. We expect that this, combined with education is the way to true lasting change.

    “Foreign demand for Bolivian quinoa will approach 20,000 tons by 2015.”

    No- it’s way past that point: foreign demand is around 37,000 metric tons.- all of which are fulfilled. Bolivia Produces 45,000 Metric tons.

    “The overall yield has actually dropped. This, he says, causes the sustainability of the crop to be “in severe crisis” ”

    This is actually true, we’re seeing many areas where yields are dropping in part due to insufficient fertilizers used (we encourage organic certified fertilizers and only buy organic), insufficient rotation and the climate. In order to combat this there are very good NGOs providing technical assistance in the field. On our end we spent $60,000 last year in field demonstrations to show farmers adapted technologies and improved organic fertilizers. We hope that they will see the long term benefits of land rotation, coupled with proper fertilization (mainly through llama dung) and fallow periods.

    FairTrade Certified quinoa, for example, mandates that a 30% of the fair trade premium be invested in sustainability programs. For more on the standards see here:

    http://www.fairtrade.net/fileadmin/user_upload/content/2009/standards/documents/2012-03-30_EN_Quinoa_MainChangeDoc.pdf

  • slgnunez

    Sorry! my comment below was sent in to the wrong article! I was replying to a negative article on quinoa here:

    http://www.takepart.com/article/2013/01/25/why-quinoa-could-disappear-completely

    Still, some of the comments may be relevant :)