Questioning Quinoa

19 Jun 2013

In 2013 people around the world are celebrating quinoa, the small nutritious pseudo-cereal considered to be the “mother of all seeds” by the Incas, as part of the International Year of Quinoa declared by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Native to the Andes and with 5,000 years of history behind it, quinoa seems to embody the idea of food sovereignty and biodiversity. It is deeply rooted in the cultures of the peoples who have cultivated and eaten it for centuries; it is very nutritious; it is a hardy plant with a high morphological variability, which has been traditionally cultivated using sustainable methods; and it has been an important product for local markets and economies.

The history of quinoa is an adventurous one. European conquerors banished its cultivation and consumption linked to sacred rituals in an attempt to erase the food culture of local populations, but it survived through the centuries thanks to a “peaceful rebellion” upheld by peasant families. However, the industrialization of agriculture in the 20th century ensured that quinoa was slowly but surely forgotten. It is only in recent decades that the impressive nutritional properties of the seed stimulated its pronounced recovery.

The numbers speak for themselves. Over the past 20 years, the area devoted to the cultivation of quinoa in Bolivia (the world’s biggest producer) has grown from 10,000 to 50,000 acres and production has increased from 5,000 to 25,000 tons. But today 90% of Bolivia’s production is for export. From a timid start on the international market, quinoa quickly grew to become an important product at a global level, with demand driven largely by its culinary versatility and its nutritional properties – it contains high amounts of vegetable proteins, essential amino acids and fiber, is rich in unsaturated fats and contains no gluten.

However, the global quinoa craze has thrown up several problems. The market price has increased considerably and the grain is now valued at four times the price of rice or other grains on the Bolivian market, making it inaccessible to the majority of the local population who live below the poverty line.

Producers view this newfound popularity with a mix of hope and concern, stressing that promotion on the international market should be accompanied by a similar effort on the local market, where consumption is now small. They are also concerned that market expansion should be accompanied by mechanisms to support the continued use of sustainable cultivation methods, as otherwise the environment could suffer consequences such as increasing desertification. Today these conflicting issues are also being felt by urban middleclass consumers, who are pleased that quinoa is now available to them but at the same time denounce its status as a “gourmet food” to the exclusion of the world’s poorest.

With populations in quinoa’s growing regions forced to turn to the very cereals consumers in other countries are trying to diversify from – like rice and corn – it is natural to question if quinoa is making a real contribution to food security today and if slogans like “quinoa can feed the world” shouldn’t be accompanied by policies that ensure its accessibility to local populations first. The hope is that the many planned meetings with representatives of producing states will lead to greater consideration of these delicate and concerning issues, in particular pricing and the risk of turning a sustainable product into a commodity grown in huge monoculture farms. Quinoa should be able to play a truly significant role in decreasing malnutrition, and governments of producing countries can embrace its potential by including it in school feeding programs and ensuring it is available to their poorest populations for example. Only in this way can it really be considered a good, clean and fair food.

Centuries ago we told the story of a food that was banned by conquerors and survived because of the strength of the people whose identity it represented. Today, we need to avoid the creation of a new story about a food that conquered the world to the point that its original people could no longer afford it.

This week, from June 17 to 21, FAO is organizing a daily program of events in Rome as part of the International Year of Quinoa. Today’s session “Recognition of indigenous peoples’ knowledge,” is being presented by Cinzia Scaffidi, Director of the Slow Food Study Centre.

In May, Slow Food Cultivos Andinos (Jujuy Province, Argentina) collaborated in the production of the publication Los haceres y saberes de la Quinoa, an initiative created within the International Year of Quinoa.

Silvia Ceriani
s.ceriani @

This article is based largely on interviews with Bolivian producers and consumers belonging to Slow Food Consumo Responsible based in La Paz. We thank them for their time and their availability.

Read more:
S.E. Jacobsen, “La producción de quinua en el sur de Bolivia. Del éxito económico al desastre ambiental”
T. Philpott, “Quinoa: good, evil, or just really complicated?”
J. Blythman, “Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa”
T. Kerssen, “Quinoa: to buy or not to buy… Is this the right question?”
S. Romero, “Quinoa’s Global Success Creates Quandary at Home”

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