What Is Quinoa? How Quinoa Became America's Hottest Whole Grain and Brought New Income to Bolivian Farmers

By Matthew Thompson, "Rediscovering Quinoa," March/April 2013

Farming quinoa has become big buiness in rural Bolivia as quinoa's nutrition and health benefits have made it the whole-grain darling of healthy diets.

"The argument that the expanding international quinoa market "brought new income to Bolivian farmers" is misleading insofar as it is meant to make consumers from rich countries feel that by buying quinoa they are part of a process of...

“And what would you do without quinoa?” I ask.

He looks at me a second, thinking. “Our choice is simple: it’s ‘quinoa or emigrate.’”

One person trying to keep Bolivia’s quinoa industry healthy is Sergio Nuñez de Arco, a Bolivian-born, U.S.-raised entrepreneur. Together with his brother Fabricio and backed by trading house Specialty Commodities, he runs an importing business called Andean Naturals that accounts for a third of the quinoa sold in the United States. Though business is booming—what was initially a $90,000 investment six years ago is now a $30 million empire—when he speaks to quinoa farmers, his tone is cautious, not exuberant.

Nuñez de Arco’s company is working hard to help farmers get organic certification, develop sustainability plans and ensure they have enough quinoa for themselves. It takes a lot of work to bring lasting change to a region where caravans of smugglers still ply the sandy roads. Increased incomes and tractors are a start, but it’s going to take schools, Internet access and hospitals. “A lot of people tell me, ‘Stop living in Disneyland!’” he says as we bomb down an empty highway. “But to me, it’s like keeping a garden: you can try to grow one as big as possible and watch it all get out of control. Or,” and here he points toward the sweeping valley of dust and gold, “you can try to take care of a small one, where, if you have enough time and resources, you can make something beautiful thrive.”

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