Quinoa, the “Golden Grain”, coveted by the world and exciting to Bolivia
Small snowflakes are diluted in the trenches of a newly opened land, previously parched and thirsty. Miguel Choque exhales the damp and cold air of the Bolivian highlands, smiles, and says that the snow is a good omen for planting quinoa. In seven months, flower clusters will color the rugged landscape yellow, green and red.
Quinoa is a grain that helped save the Incas from hunger, and is now transforming one of the poorest regions of Bolivia ever since it became popular in wealthier countries for its exceptional nutritional properties. These properties have even led NASA to include quinoa in the diet of astronauts. Sales of quinoa has increased sevenfold since 2000, when demand of the grain began to rise.
The government of Evo Morales included the cereal as a “strategic” food source for Bolivian food security, and is boosting its domestic consumption. Known as the golden grain of the Andes, quinoa is the only plant food that provides ten essential amino acids for humans. It has a high protein content (14-18%) and is a good source of phosphorus, calcium, iron and vitamin E, and may even replace breast milk, according to FAO.
The crop, which grows in the arid and poor region of the highlands located at 3700 meters above sea level, is resistant to the frost and droughts that periodically hit the region.
Bolivia produces 46% of worldwide production, followed by Peru with 30% and the U.S. with 10%, according to the Ministry of Production and the Plural Economy.
In 2000, Bolivia exported 1439 tons of quinoa for $1.8 million. Last year, exports reached 14,500 tons, generating over $25 million, with the EU, U.S. and Japan as the largest consumer markets.
This year’s goal is to produce 30,000 tons of quinoa, said Deputy Minister of Rural Development, Victor Hugo Vasquez.
Quinoa is a seed that is eaten as a grain, has no gluten and is easier to digest than corn, wheat, rye, millet and sorghum.
The native people who cultivate it are among the poorest in the world, and until recently, often lived on a barter system. As it became more popular in wealthier countries, these natives introducted quinoa into the market, remembers Brigido Martinez, president of the National Association of Quinoa Producers.
In 1983, quinoa cost about $3 a bushel and was known as “Indian food”, while today it trades at a hundred dollars, says Martinez. The boom began during the Spanish king’s first visit to Bolivia in mid-1987. King Juan Carlos I included the grain in his diet, gaining the attention of the worldwide public.
The most recognized variety of quinoa is the actual quinoa in Bolivia, which only grows in a region neighboring huge salt lakes in the southwest. Constant sun, salty air coming from the sea, and salty earth all help to produce the prized grain that the Bolivian government seeks patent. It is more expensive, as its price can reach $3000 a ton.
Many in Bolivia believe that quinoa can transform the impoverished highlands, much like soybeans have. Prices paid in U.S. and European markets per metric ton of quinoa are up to five times more than those for soybeans.
Martinez, however, does not think the grain will greatly influence the economic boom of the Altiplano. The highland farmers have little land, 10 hectares on average. “Quinoa is not lifting us out of poverty, but we do live better,” he says.
The seed was ignored by the Bolivians themselves by their slightly bitter taste.
Today, it is a luxury item.
“Quinoa is like the rice of the highlands,” said Evo Morales in late December during a visit to Venezuela. “Before people would not eat quinoa, calling it Indian food and, [as because of that], would not eat it. Now the Bolivian people have started to react ‘.
Some authorities say that because the traditional farming methods for the cultivation of quinoa is less harmful to the environment than other crops, quinoa fits the model of society that President Morales, the first indigenous Bolivian to govern the country, hopes to build. His stated goal is to double the crop to 100,000 hectares, strengthen ecological quinoa production, and industrialize and boost domestic consumption.