Is the quinoa agriculture model one that can be replicated in other parts of Bolivia?

Mieke Dale HarrisThe recent history of quinoa production in Bolivia probably tells the country’s most inspirational agriculture success story.  In the five years between 2006 and 2011 quinoa production increased by 163 percent, from 7,750 metric tons to 20,366 metric tons. During the last decade quinoa prices have also shown an unprecedented increase. The price of the specialty crop ‘royal quinoa’ rose from US$1,245 per metric ton to 2007 and an astonishing US$3,237 per metric ton in 2012.

Quinoa is a grain-like crop that is traditionally cultivated in the most un-hospitable parts of the Andean mountain range. For centuries South Americans living on high altitude Andean plateaus have reaped the benefits of quinoa seeds, but little international attention had been paid to the crop. In fact, on arrival, the Spanish colonialists saw that quinoa was considered sacred by the Incas, who referred to it as ‘chisaya mama’, meaning ‘mother of all grains’, and thus scorned it as ‘food for Indians’ and even actively suppressed its cultivation. In its place the Incas were forced to grow the popular European wheat. However, since American Dave Schnorr introduced quinoa to United States (US) market in 1982 with his Quinoa Corporation enterprise the crop has received growing international attention.  This attention started as a slow trickle, with Quinoa Corporation sales growing by 5-10 percent annually during the 80s and 90s, but has more than taken off since the millennium, with Quinoa Corporation reporting growth rates of 40 percent and above despite the growing competition from other enterprises that are jumping on the band wagon.

Bolivia has benefited more than any other country from this quinoa boom, as it has large areas of unique landscape which possesses ideal conditions for the cultivation of a number of the more highly regarded strains of quinoa. Furthermore, families here have been cultivating quinoa on a small-scale level for centuries. The small-scale of the quinoa farming has meant that it has hardly been affected by the advent of fertilizers and pesticides. This lack of agricultural aid may have plagued production in the past but it has turned out to be a god-send, as consequently Bolivia has been able to get a global reputation for good quality organic quinoa. This combination of suitable topography and un-contaminated land has thrust Bolivia into first place in terms of quinoa exports, with the country now cultivating half the world’s supplying.

This has generated a much needed boost for both the Bolivian government and its southeastern Andean population, who previously inhabited some of the most destitute, isolated and inhospitable lands in Bolivia. The lands are still climatically inhospitable but rising quinoa production and prices has contributed to the alleviation of poverty.

The equitability of the development of quinoa production to date is what makes its rise such a success. Industrialized large-scale farms have not yet moved in to colonize the southern altiplano, and with them the inevitable economic and social disruption.  In 2011, the newspaper La Patria reported that there were approximately 70 thousand quinoa producers in the states of La Paz, Oruro and Potosi. Moreover, the companies that control both the national and international distribution of quinoa are mostly Bolivian, rather than foreign, enterprises, which work with many small-hold producers and processors rather than a few large ones. For this reason, quinoa has gone from being a minimal contributor to southeastern Andean plateau farmers’ incomes to contributing between 55 and 85 percent. This has triggered rural development marked with equality in an area were food insecurity was once strife (due to a lack of fruit and veg rather than quinoa), and decent education and health services were little more than a far away dream. It is not surprising then that I am asking myself if this model can be repeated in other rural regions of Bolivia with other crops.

Unfortunately the answer to this query is probably no. Quinoa owes its well deserved new found popularity to followers of the health trend in the west finally discovering its impressive versatility and unique nutritious properties. Quinoa is a complete protein, meaning that it is a protein that contains adequate amounts of all of the nine essential amino acids necessary for human dietary needs, it is also a good source of carbohydrates, dietary fiber, phosphorous, magnesium and iron. In addition, it is gluten free and therefore easily digestible and suitable for people with more sensitive dietary needs. Furthermore, its flexibility is remarkable; it can be used in savory dishes, desserts and beverages. New applications for quinoa are being found at a remarkable pace, including energy bars, tortilla chips, instant soups, meat substitutes, pet food and even vodka. This is about as an impressive a resume as a crop can have and it is extremely unlikely that if another is discovered, or rediscovered as was the case with quinoa, that Bolivia will be the natural front-runner for its exportation.

Nevertheless there is one contributing aspect of Bolivia’s quinoa production that makes it better than that of Bolivia’s Andean neighbors and could be a focus of future agriculture policies, and that is its “organicness.”

Organic food is a major part of the current health trend that is enveloping the middle and upper class families of developed countries, and its consumer popularity is rising at a speed that could almost match that of quinoa. During most of the last half of the 20th century organic food products were only sold to a very niche market in specialty stores or markets. However, this all changed in the 90s and by the millennium in the United States more organic food products were sold in conventional supermarkets than any other venue.

Unlike other consumer based industries the organic food market is based on an increasing demand rather than an increasing supply. In fact supply is struggling to keep up. With this growth in popularity and therefore production there is an emerging catch, and that is; is my organic carrot more organic than yours?

There are no set global standards for organic farming and therefore a product’s “organicness” is becoming an increasing issue for consumers. Not surprisingly, in countries where organic products are sourced by industrialized farms this issue is more contentious than ever, as such agribusinesses have the power to lobby for lower organic standards. Furthermore, for many organic food consumers industrialized farming goes against the “culture” of organic food, which is to support small-scale, polyculture, more “natural” and environmentally friendly forms of farming.

This is the market that with enough governmental support and savvy co-operations the Bolivian agriculture sector could aim to catch. Not only will buying products from small farmers in Bolivia satisfy organic consumers’ moral conscience  it will also soften any concerns of buying “contaminated” organic products. That is if Bolivia can reign in the increasing mine-induced contamination of its highlands and gain a similar organic reputation for other products as it currently has for quinoa.

In part, the success of Bolivian organic quinoa production was also boosted by the traditional knowledge of small-hold farmers in the High Andean Plateau of how to cultivate and process quinoa without chemical inputs. This knowledge has in turn been successful exploited by distributors, such as the Anapqui and Quinoa Foods Company.

Traditionally the idea of organic food went hand in hand with local food. However, with its sharp rise in popularity stores are importing to meet demand, and if growth rates of the last decade and predictions for the future decade are anything to go by, this shift in supply will only amplify. From the early 90s to the economic crisis in the mid-late 00s sales of organic food products were seeing a 20 percent annual growth rate. Since the crisis the growth rate has slowed but is still much higher than that of normal grocery products.

India is one of the few countries that realized this and decided to take advantage of the gap in the market. According to the latest RNCOS report states are encouraging farmers to develop organic agriculture that is aimed at the premium-priced export market. This increased encouragement is built on the success of the leading organic agriculture state – Madhya Pradesh. The incomes of organic farmers here are soaring by 30 to 200 percent. Mukesh Grupta from Morarka, attributed the success of organic farming in India to the fact that “unlike Europe, India’s modern farming revolution is not very old meaning that they still possess the know-how for cultivation without modern chemical inputs.”

Bolivia has a couple of rapidly developing neighbors that as a result of growing numbers of increasing middle and upper class are experiencing an increase in demand for organic food. It also has an existing international reputation and links for organic quinoa and millions of hectares of “un-contaminated” land, although this is under threat from pollution caused by mines. For these reasons maybe, and that is a big maybe, with a large helping hand from the government and perhaps the international community,  Bolivia could also become a leading exporter of other organic produce.

Mieke Dale-Harris is working as an intern at the Institute of Advanced Development Studies (INESAD), La Paz, Bolivia. She is a psychology graduate from Goldsmiths University of London.

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  1. Very interesting, want to know more, I am a bolivian investigating about the future of Quinoa..

    • Mieke Dale-Harris

      Thank you for your enthusiasism. i would be more than happy to discuss the future of Bolivian quinoa with you but do not know how helpful i can be.


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