By Matthew Thompson, "Rediscovering Quinoa,"March/April 2013
We eat lunch in the fields, potluck-style. Each worker pours his or her contribution into a heap on a crinkled tarp and soon the earthy scents of steamed potatoes, roasted corn, hard-boiled eggs and llama jerky fill the air. A brightly clad cholita—a traditionally dressed Bolivian woman in a striped shawl and bowler hat—spoons up lamb stew with yellow chili powder; the rest of us line up with chipped plates. We are just outside of Quillacas, Bolivia, a village of adobe and corrugated tin high in the dust-blown Altiplano, a desert nestled above 12,000 feet in the Andes Mountains. In the distance, peaks worshipped by the Incans shimmer in the thin air. The sky is powder blue and the sunlight shattering.
Acres of furrowed fields with pale green quinoa seedlings pushing up from the bottom of each cleft surround us. Sure, all the foods in front of us look great, but no meal on Bolivia’s high plains is complete without quinoa (say: KEEN-wah). For over 5,000 years, this whole grain (actually a pseudo-grain, because it’s cooked like grain but is the seed of a beet relative) has been a staple of local diets. Bolivia and Peru account for 90 percent of world quinoa production. Bolivia alone produced almost 44,000 metric tons in 2012. And quinoa is perfectly suited to this country—it thrives in the high altitude, arid conditions and infertile land.
The quinoa we eat for lunch is prepared in the traditional style: the raw grain is beaten in soapstone bowls, toasted over an open flame, rinsed and then simmered until tender. When I shovel in a bite, it has a gentle, popping texture and a subtle flavor that hints at toasted sesame or fresh-baked bread.
These days one hardly has to travel to enjoy quinoa. Since 1999, production has grown by about 50 percent in Bolivia, fueled by its growing popularity in the United States and Europe. Market analyst Harry Balzer of the NPD Group puts it this way: “We in America are explorers with diet. We love to try new things. Ultimately, whether something remains in our diet comes back to a few questions, and one of them is ‘Did it make my life easier?’” Quinoa fits that bill. “It’s the quickest-cooking whole grain,” Cynthia Harriman of the Whole Grain Council points out. And it tastes good. “No one wants to cook dinner for two hours and chew it for another two. Quinoa, which takes just 15 to 20 minutes to cook, fits in with people’s busy lifestyle.” It doesn’t hurt that it’s also gluten-free and much of it is Fair Trade and organic.
But quinoa is more than just another trendy option for the kombucha-and-wheatgrass set; it boasts impressive nutrition benefits. Along with offering a good dose of fiber and iron, it’s one of the few plants that delivers a complete protein—meaning it has all nine essential amino acids in a healthy balance. That’s why it’s a favorite among vegans and one of the reasons NASA scientists recommended it as an ideal food for long-term human space missions. Quinoa’s been on researchers’ radar for decades—a 1955 scientific article noted, “There are few commonly used vegetable foods other than beans and peas that have a higher protein content.”
Given its potent nutrition profile, it’s no wonder that quinoa was so important to the people of the Andes—in Quechua, the native Incan tongue, it’s known as chisiya mama, or mother of all grains. For Incans quinoa was a basic staple along with potatoes and maize, but it was also sacred, central to numerous religious ceremonies. In fact, after Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 1530s they razed the quinoa fields and banned it in an attempt to stamp out indigenous culture. But quinoa survived in pockets. And it has remained a part of the diet of people living in the rural Andes, used for everything from baked goods to soups and even drinks.
With increasing demand for quinoa from abroad have come new concerns. The price of the crop has risen, which as The New York Times reported in March 2011 has put it financially out of reach for some Bolivians. Violent squabbles have broken out between towns over quinoa planting grounds. But there is an upside—rural Bolivians have a newfound source of income right in their communities.
In Challapata, a town at the edge of quinoa country in western Bolivia, I sit in a small room with seven wind-beaten men, wearing gray sweaters over collared shirts, to talk about how America’s new love affair with quinoa has impacted this region. On the walls hang strings of paper flowers and auto-parts calendars emblazoned with scantily clad women. Outside, the insistent wind of the plains mutters at the window. I’m meeting with senior members of ANAPQUI, an Indian farming cooperative that helps set quinoa prices for the region.
“During the 1980s,” ANAPQUI president Juan Ernesto Crispin says, “100 pounds of quinoa couldn’t buy a T-shirt.” He rattles off a blizzard of numbers, the upshot being this: quinoa is worth 10 times now what it was 30 years ago. That’s not a past that farmers are interested in going back to. His co-workers paint a dire picture of years when farmers lived hand-to-mouth and many moved to the cities to seek work or beg. Without the benefit of modern technology, rural farmers relied on ancient lore to decide when to plant or harvest—a darker-colored lizard meant rains were coming; a bird’s nest sitting deep in a bush meant a cold winter. Families worked the fields by hand, the husband pushing a plow through the gray soil and the wife following behind to sow seeds.
Now, the ANAPQUI farmers tell me, life is different. “We can buy the little things,” says a board member. “We can make improvements to our houses,” adds another. Communities have been able to buy tractors, so work that once took a week is done in an hour. They’ve dug wells and invested in irrigation to bring water to the fields. Across the region, farm-family incomes have tripled in the last five years (up from $35 a month in 2007 to $220 a month in 2012) and the flow of immigration has reversed, with many who had sought work in the cities returning to their hometowns to plant.
Crispin drives home a more important point: “Our kids are going to school now. Some are even going to college. They’re studying agriculture so they can come back and help us on the farm.” Indeed, according to ANAPQUI, 70 percent of the region’s young people can now afford to finish high school. In the poorest region of the poorest country in South America, that’s a small miracle.
At a breakfast in Quillacas—fried eggs served in a two-room inn with peeling green walls, scuffed terra cotta tiles and a TV tuned to futbol news—I discover something else that stirs the passion of these quinoa farmers. I’ve just asked a seemingly innocuous question—“What kind of fertilizer do you use?”—and been met by stony stares. It turns out that Bolivian farmers have two words for fertilizer: fertilizante, meaning typical spray-on chemicals, and abono, meaning natural compost and manure. It is a great point of pride for these farmers that they use abono, never fertilizante.
In fact, if you get any of the Quillacas natives talking you’ll discover that they can discourse at length about sustainability, soil depletion and ecological balance. More than half of the quinoa produced in Bolivia is certified organic. Llamas are essential in this carefully balanced ecosystem—they provide manure, one of the only natural fertilizers in the Altiplano. And though some llama grazing land has been taken over for quinoa production, a farmer insists, “We need to take care of the llamas because they provide the best abono.” Later in the ANAPQUI office, Crispin puts it even more bluntly. “The llama and quinoa are married. Each would die without the other. It’s important for us to live in balance with nature—the quinoa depends on it.”
“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.”