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The Guardian | Tuesday 15 January 2013
Global development podcast Hopes and fears for the world in 2013 guardian.co.uk/global-development
Quinoa brings riches to the Andes
Wonder food A woman carrying quinoa in Bolivia. The grain can withstand night frosts, 40C temperatures, high altitudes and saline soil. It is also one of the world’s most nutritious foods Photograph: Laurent Giraudou/Corbis
Rise in exports of traditional crop bring malnutrition fears as Bolivian and Peruvian farmers cash in on demand
Dan Collyns La Paz
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 40C (104F). It grows 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 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 prehispanic 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. “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 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 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, everything!” Daysi Munoz, who runs a La Pazbased 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.” 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 grow royal quinoa, says Mejia. Most land is communally owned, so “the government nee to set out the boundaries ne needs re or there will be more conﬂicts”. In t village of Lacaya, near n the L Lak Lake Titicaca, the farmers hav have recently sown quinoa. It gr grows faster in the wetter cond conditions but the variety q quinu quinua dulce is less sought a after t than royal quinoa. Un Under the intense altip plano sun, Petrona Uriche’s face face is shadowed by her felt bow hat. bowler h She says in the wler e years three yea her village has been farming qui g quinoa it has become the biggest ear earner. “We produce quinoa rner. just or expo it’s more proﬁtable,” she just for ex export, said An 11.5kg arroba sack of quinoa can aid. 11.5 fetch eight times more than it did a few years ago, around $2 a kg, she adds. But the Bolivian government – which like 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 0.35kg 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 programme to promote nutritious breakfasts. “That’s what we have to avoid, we have to produce better and more,” he said. Peru cut chronic malnutrition in under-ﬁves nationally to 16.5% in 2011 but it is still widely prevalent in poorer Andean regions. According to the World Bank, 27.2% of under-ﬁves in Bolivia suﬀered chronic malnutrition in 2008. Peru’s ﬁrst lady, Nadine Heredia, is championing a campaign to promote the Andean diet, of which quinoa is a key element, to combat infant malnutrition. In 2012 Peru banked nearly $35m from
By Peruvian chef Andres Ugaz 1kg ﬂour 50ml olive oil 30g salt 100g sourdough 100g quinoa 100g kanihua (a grain similar to quinoa – use quinoa if unavailable) 200g wholemeal ﬂour 900ml of water Put all ingredients into the blender, except the water. Mix on the lowest speed for four minutes then on the third speed for ﬁve minutes. Add water gradually during the process. Remove the dough, cover it with a cloth and leave it on a wooden board for one hour. Put the dough on a board sprinkled with ﬂour and cut it into rectangular pieces of 6cm by 8cm. Cover them with a cloth and let them ferment for one hour. Pre-heat the oven to 250C for ﬁve minutes. Put the pieces on a ﬂour-covered tray, sprinkle on more ﬂour and cook them at 180C for 22 minutes. quinoa exports, tripling what it earned three years ago. In Bolivia exports tripled to 23,000 tonnes, Vásquez said. But experts say both countries need to boost production to meet 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 $5m 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”.
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 (14%-18%) surpasses that of wheat, rice, maize and oats, and can be a substitute to animal protein. Its caloriﬁc value is greater than that of e hat eggs mparable only nly and milk and comparable on to that of meat. It is a source of at. e vitamin E, vitamin B2 (riboﬂaamin ﬂans erals vin) and contains more mine minerals such as calcium, potassium, magnesium and phosphorus hosphorus s than other grains. Studies have shown quiwn noa helps coeliacs to regenerate gluten tolerance while other research found it cont tains phytoestrogens, said to aid o poro oprevent or reduce osteoporosis, breast cancer and other er conditions that can be caused se ed by lack of oestrogen.