Quinoa's Growing Popularity Sparks Battle Between U.S. Researchers, Bolivian Farmers

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Quinoa, the current darling of the health food scene, is a little granule grown in the high plains of the Andes. It so dense with protein and essential amino acids it is called a “super food.” It has become such a rock star the United Nations even dedicated a whole year – 2013 – to it.

Besides being packed with nutrients, it carries an equally weighty and complicated tug of war between interests outside of quinoa producing regions and those of indigenous farmers.

At issue is quinoa’s germplasm, the genetic material in its seeds. Bolivia, the main exporter of the grain, has seed backup for the country’s 120 different species and 1,800 varieties. However, the country has a treaty that limits what it will share with the world. U.S. researchers who are trying to grow the grain elsewhere argue the seeds need to be made available so that they can breed plants that can survive in other areas to bring better nutrients to poor countries.

But Bolivian farmers see things a differently. Spanish conquistadores banned quinoa, which was used for spiritual practices. It was derogatorily considered an indigenous food. Now, centuries later, it has brought prosperity and power to a historically marginalized region.

“I have no doubt about researchers’ goodwill,” said Pablo Laguna, a sociologist and anthropologist who has been studying social and financial impact of quinoa on Bolivian producers. What draws his concern is the potential for companies take over and eventually outproduce Andean farmers. “The problem is, What mechanism do we have to protect the peasants’ intellectual property?”

Quinoa is grown in the altiplano, the high plains region of the Andes in Bolivia and Peru, and also in parts of Ecuador, Colombia and Argentina. The U.S. and Canada are among some of the countries that produce it also, but in smaller quantities, and there are efforts to grow it elsewhere. But, some researchers say, without having a large sampling of seeds to select for certain traits, it will be hard to cultivate crops to survive pests or climate in other regions.

Researchers from Brigham Young University are working with Bolivian farmers, said chair of the plant and wildlife department Rick Jellen. Quinoa, he said, wasn’t widely consumed outside of the altiplano region in Bolivia.

Farmers were seeking a way to increase production and make it more attractive to the rest of their country. But when U.S. importers started inquiring about the seed, farmers quickly shifted their sights to a global market.

One of the ways to increase production and make the food palatable was to find an efficient mechanism to get rid of the bitter coating on the seeds. After many years of trying and many grants to help them buy equipment, they had success. Since then, demand has skyrocketed. In 2007, the U.S. imported 7.3 million pounds of quinoa. In 2013, nearly 70 million, most of that coming from Peru and Bolivia.

As important as quinoa is to Bolivia and its people, many say quinoa can put a dent in global hunger. Professors, such as Jellen, are working with Morocco and other countries to grow it. But this will prove challenging, some argue, if a diverse array of seeds from Bolivia and Peru aren’t shared.

“I believe God gave [humanity] this as a gift – along with wheat, corn, rice – not something for one group to benefit from,” said Jellen.

Besides quinoa, other crops native to Bolivia are grown in parts of the high plains. But it’s quinoa that has the spotlight and is giving indigenous farmers increasing political and economic clout. Bolivia’s president Evo Morales, who reported to have once been a quinoa farmer, declared quinoa a strategic priority two years ago and has devoted millions to expand the crop and introduce harvesting machinery.

As great as the demand has become, it could be much greater. A wider use of quinoa in cereals and breads isn’t likely to happen until companies can start tapping a more reliable supply, said Jellen.

The problem is, it’s really hard to grow quinoa outside of the Andean high plains, said Stephen Gorad, who was the first to import quinoa to the United States. When he first started, he got some seeds from Chile and tried to grow quinoa in Colorado. It wasn’t successful and now, after working with quinoa for decades, he’s learned how fickle the plant is. He’s also learned that the Bolivian varieties thrive in an extreme climate with limited oxygen but there aren’t many places that can reproduce that.

Regardless, there are large fields of quinoa growing in France, Argentina and elsewhere. Gorad said the train to grow quinoa on a mass scale that may be useful to larger food companies is getting ready to leave the station – whether Bolivia is holding the seed or not.

There is some concern that the Andean altiplano region can’t sustain quinoa demand without taking a toll on the environment and forgoing other crops. But Blake Waltrip, CEO from Ancient Harvest, a brand that imports quinoa, thinks the country can go further than it currently has.

“There are 120,000 hectares of land being used for quinoa farming in Bolivia, but 4 million hectares are available and appropriate for quinoa farming. There's room to plant much more quinoa than is currently being cultivated,” he said. “Because there is so much land, there is better opportunity to farm in a sustainable way by allowing the land adequate time to rest.”

Ultimately, Bolivian farmers are acutely aware of what can happen if they lose control of their crop. When the Spanish invaded South America in the 1500s, they brought the potato plant from indigenous populations and grew it worldwide. Meanwhile, altiplano natives grew ostracized and now the country doesn’t grow enough potatoes to feed itself. Bolivia imports half their potatoes.

With the quinoa boom has come a certain amount of prosperity. Farmers have been able to upgrade the homes they keep that are away from the plains. They are able to provide education for their children and they have seen an increase in the number of teachers in their communities. The key to keeping this growing wealth could be the seeds.

“Quinoa is not only providing money to farmers, you have an industry, you have exporters, you have industrial machine factories to supply industrial cleaning process,” said Laguna. “Of course you want to keep all the advantages.”