Quinoa, the nutrient-packed powerfood of the moment, has become a hot commodity. It is the food of choice for astronauts in space missions, and the United Nations identified it as a possible solution to end world hunger. But far from the hype are the thousands of Bolivian farmers whose livelihood has depended on quinoa – (“quinua” locally) – for centuries.
As it is, Latin American food is healthy by all accounts. The traditional plate of rice, beans, and meats typically served across most of the region is packed with carbs and proteins, but is spared of processed ingredients and additives. Obesity, so widespread in the US, has only recently begun to be a problem in Latin-American countries, says the World Health Organization (WHO), but this is mostly on account of high sugar intake and the rising consumption of fast food in these developing nations. Corn, mandioca (known as yucca in most Caribbean countries), and plantain have been the main staples in the region since pre-colonial times. But none has become a craze in rich countries quite like quinoa.
Often confused for a grain, quinoa is in fact a chenopod, a distant cousin to leafy vegetables such as spinach. It is commonly referred to as a super-food because of its uniquely high protein levels (it is the only complete protein among vegetables), heart-healthy fats like monounsaturated fat, omega-3, and alpha-linoleic acid, as well as high protein levels and amino-acids. Quinoa is also found to be an anti-inflammatory, and it is gluten-free.
The super-food is grown in the highlands of Bolivia, one of the few countries with the dry and cold climate required for the crop, although Peru and, to a lesser extent, the US, also harvests it. Bolivia exports 20,000 tons of quinoa every year, generating US$65 million last year. The Chamber of Quinoa Exporters of Bolivia indicates that harvests have expanded seven-fold in the past decade, as the demand from the US and European markets have skyrocketed.
New only to our palates
The Whole Grains Council, reports that Philip White, a researcher who visited the Andes in the 1950’s wrote that “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.” The crop was still unknown to developed nations then, it wasn’t until the 1970’s that its benefits become widespread.
Its benefits have hardly been a mystery for the locals, though. Quinoa was revered by the Incan civilization over five thousand years ago. Following the Spanish landing in the area, the crop was forgotten in the high altitudes of Lake Titicaca area until just a few decades ago; when NASA scientists found it to be the ideal food for space missions.
And so it began.
Quinoa has been designated a “super crop” by the United Nations, for its potential to feed the hungry of the world. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) officially declared that the year 2013 be recognized as “The International Year of the Quinoa.”
However, the results have been mixed for the Bolivian farmers who have been living off the crop for centuries. The price of quinoa has skyrocketed, making the grain no longer affordable for local Bolivians, who use it as an ingredient for baked goods and beverages.
According to a statement made by Víctor Hugo Vásquez, the vice-minister of Rural and Cultural Development of the Ministry of Agriculture in February 2013, 52% of the production in 2012 was exported, with only 24% destined for internal consumption. Higher prices have also prompted farmers to switch their harvest to quinoa, and away from other sustainable crops. This, local agronomists say, could disrupt the local ecosystem and deplete the soil. Also, it means that other important staples like potatoes and rice are not being grown in that land.
According to Vasquez, this trend is expected to revert in the near future, since the government is promoting the use of quinoa locally in order to allow the population to enjoy the benefits of the crop. For example, quinoa has been included in public school breakfasts and lactation diets.
The Bolivian government is ready ramp up the trade, pledging to support the crop. Evo Morales, the country’s president, denied to the UN in February that quinoa’s prices would preclude consumption by indigenous Bolivians, and that his years as a farmer, gave him confidence that it would be possible to meet the demand for the grain, both domestically and in the international market.
However, the industry faces serious shortcomings that must also be tackled in order to optimize. According to the Chamber of Exporters, it is necessary to apply more modern agricultural technology. Illicit flowing into Peru is also a growing problem.