CARACOLLO, Bolivia – It's as inhospitable as climates come for crop cultivation, the dry and rocky soils of Bolivia's semiarid altiplain. Miguel Choque can see his breath as surveys his fields of quinoa, the Andean "supergrain."
In late March or April, the flowering plants will paint the rugged landscape yellow, green and red. Their diminutive seed, which powered Inca armies only to be elbowed aside by the wheat preferred by colonizing Spaniards, is unmatched in nutritional value.
Quinoa's rising popularity among First World foodies — the wholesale price has jumped sevenfold since 2000 as global demand climbed — has been a boon to the poor farmers here in the semiarid highlands where most of it grows.
And that boom has transformed the lives of the largely subsistence farmers who grow it, though it remains unclear whether the large-scale commercial cultivation sought by Bolivia's government is environmentally sustainable in the altiplain— or even welcome by growers.
President Evo Morales' government has deemed quinoa a "strategic" foodstuff, essential to this poverty-afflicted nation's food security. It is promoting the grain and has included quinoa in a subsidized food parcel for pregnant women.
Yet the higher prices quinoa is fetching have had an unanticipated impact where the grain is grown. Some local children are showing signs of malnutrition because their parents have substituted rice and noodles for quinoa in the family diet, said Walter Severo, president of a quinoa producer's group in southwest Bolivia.
"Only 10 percent of it stays in Bolivia. The other 90 percent gets exported," says Rural Development Minister Nemecia Achacollo.
Quinoa (pronounced KEEN-wah) provides 10 essential amino acids, is loaded with minerals and has a high protein content — between 14 and 18 percent. The FAO (U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization) says it is so nutritious it can be substituted for mother's milk.
"This food is about the most perfect you can find for human diets," said Duane Johnson, a 61-year-old former Colorado State agronomist who helped introduce it to the United States three decades ago.
Quinoa isn't a cereal. It's a seed that is eaten like a grain, but is gluten-free and more easily digestible than corn, wheat, rye, millet and sorghum. And it can be substituted for rice in just about anything — from soup to salad to pudding to bread.
"I've got high-performance athletes that swear by it," said David Schnorr, president of Quinoa Corp., the largest U.S. importer. It's also being embraced by the increasing number of Americans with food allergies or celiac disease, an immunological rejection of gluten, a wheat protein. NASA researchers consider it ideal for inclusion in possible future long-term space missions when crops would need to be grown on spacecraft.
Quinoa has been cultivated in the Andean highlands since 3,000 B.C., and grows natively from Chile north to Colombia, mostly in Peru and Bolivia. The varieties of this region of southwestern Bolivia — at 3,700 meters (over 12,000 feet) — are resistant to the freezes and droughts that periodically afflict it.
The crop — "chisiya mama" or mother grain in the native Quechua language — also grows in the San Luis Valley of Colorado at about 8,000 feet (2,400 meters) as well as in a growing number of countries including China and Mongolia, said Johnson.
"It's very specific in the environments where it will grow," he said. "It requires very cool days and even cooler evenings."
He says Peru and Bolivia account for as much as 97 percent of global production.
And demand is booming.
"We've easily doubled our business in the last couple of years during the worst economic recession we've had in a long time," said Schnoor.
In 2000, Bolivia exported 1,439 metric tons valued at $1.8 million. In 2009, exports totaled 14,500 tons worth more than $25 million, principally to the U.S., Japan and Europe. The goal for this harvest is 30,000 tons, said Bolivia's deputy minister of rural development, Victor Hugo Vasquez.
Schnoor said prices soared threefold in early 2008. A decade ago, a 12-ounce box of his quinoa, marketed under the Ancient Harvest brand, retailed for 99 cents in the United States. Now it costs about $4.50. It's also available in bulk at natural food markets — and even Costco warehouse stores now carry it.
The indigenous Bolivians who cultivate quinoa are among Bolivia's poorest and many lived until the late 20th century by barter. It was the discovery of quinoa by the health conscious in wealthier countries that introduced these people to the life of the market, says Brigido Martinez, president of the National Association of Quinoa producers, ANAPQUI.
Martinez traces the boom in quinoa's popularity to a visit by the king and queen of Spain in 1987, when the royals sampled it, and the news media and the world took note. Food exporters in the coastal Peruvian capital of Lima, where it had been considered "poor people's food" by the European-descended elite, took note and began buying it up.
It's not by chance that most of the world's quinoa comes from Bolivia.
In the 1990s, Johnson and fellow Colorado State University crop scientist Sarah Ward patented a high-yielding hybrid with the intention of spurring large-scale cultivation in the U.S. But they were challenged by ANAPQUI in an international court and abandoned the effort.
There are those in Bolivia who believe this scrappy grain could lift its altiplain out of poverty just as soy has become the economic motor of the country's wealthier eastern lowlands. After all, quinoa fetches up to five times the price of soy beans in the U.S. and European markets.
Martinez doesn't believe that can or will happen. For one, quinoa growers farm on a smaller scale (the country's soy growers are mostly agribusinessmen with huge plantations).
But for a government that proudly declares itself "decolonizing" Bolivia in favor of its long downtrodden indigenous majority, the promotion of quinoa is a linchpin of an agricultural policy that favors the small holder over agribusiness.
Officials are working on details of a plan to boost quinoa production, including credits for farmers that never before had access to financing. Many producers are suspicious, however, that the government could turn into a competitor.
"Its support is fine, but we'd like it to help with irrigation and research to improve the quality of the seed and soil performance," said Martinez.
Meanwhile, some quinoa farmers have put their increased income to work raising more llamas and alpacas, whose waste is used as fertilizer and which also produce wool. And while most harvesting is still done manually, some have abandoned the ox-pulled plow for tractors.
Some farmers believe current cultivation methods inadequate.
"The soils are tired and need nutrition. Production is dropping," said Francisco Quisbert, an indigenous leader in the region where Quinoa Real is grown.
But other quinoa boosters caution that traditional, organic farming methods must be maintained to preserve the purity of the crop.
Consumers in the developed world don't want quinoa grown with chemical fertilizers or pest controllers, said Schnorr.
However it plays out, Martinez, the producer's association president, is not complaining.
"Quinoa isn't lifting us out of poverty," he says. "But we are living better."