The Salt
5:14 pm
Thu August 15, 2013

Can Quinoa Farming Go Global Without Leaving Andeans Behind?

Originally published on Fri August 16, 2013 2:53 pm

I ate quinoa-and-turkey chili in a cafeteria today, which, when you think about it, is pretty amazing. Rarely does an entire culture, almost overnight, adopt an entirely new food.

Just 15 years ago, quinoa was practically unknown outside of the Andean region of South America. When European explorers first arrived in the Americas, they liked some of the food they found here (potatoes, corn) but they had no use for quinoa. For a while, they even tried to get people here to stop growing it. So while corn and potatoes spread around the globe, quinoa stayed home. Only the people of present-day Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Ecuador persisted in growing this multicolored relative of spinach and tumbleweed, with its big lumpy head of seeds.

How times change.

Quinoa is now seen as cool, exotic and supernutritious. It's turned into a profitable export crop for those Andean farmers. And it's ready to take another leap — into global production.

Farmers around the world are hoping to climb onto this quinoa bandwagon by growing quinoa themselves, with tractors and combines and large-scale processing plants. And some Andean farmers are asking, "What happens to us?"

Both sides gathered this week at Washington State University, in Pullman, Wash., for a kind of global quinoa summit. The group included agricultural researchers who are experimenting with quinoa in Denmark, France, Pakistan, Malawi, Colorado, and the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

Some had stories of success; others, tales of failure. "It was not immediately successful anywhere that it's been grown," says Kevin Murphy, a plant breeder at Washington State University, who organized the conference. Many varieties of quinoa only seem happy in the cool, dry, highlands of the Andes. If it's too hot, many won't produce a harvest. Too much rain is bad, too.

"We're spending a lot of time testing different varieties that have come out of the Andean countries to see if any of them will, one, survive here, and two, produce a seed that we'd like to eat," says Jeff Maughan, a scientist at Brigham Young University. Maughan is studying the genetics of quinoa.

Researchers also are figuring out how to mass-produce this crop, and harvest it with machines.

Murphy says those practical problems can be solved. He's more worried about something else: fairness.

In four or five years, he says, quinoa won't only be grown in the Andes anymore. But what about the people of the Andes, such as the farmers whose ancestors kept quinoa alive through the centuries, who selected all these different varieties? What will happen to them?

"For me, that's the most pressing question, the most urgent question," Murphy says.

Murphy invited some Bolivian farmers to this quinoa summit, and five of them came. They'd never been outside Bolivia before.

Pablo Laguna was also there. He's an anthropologist, half-Bolivian and half-French, who's been working among traditional quinoa farmers. He has become a bridge between them and the outside world.

Laguna says that when these farmers see the rest of the world trying to grow their crop, they have a couple of reactions. "On the one hand, they're proud of being descendants of people who selected those plants," he says.

They're also pragmatic, Laguna says. They know they can't stop the growing international appetite for quinoa. They don't even want to; it's been profitable for them. (Some news reports have suggested that poor Bolivians have been hurt by foreign demand for quinoa, but Laguna and others say that's almost completely untrue.)

But the Bolivian farmers also feel that if they provide this plant for competitors to grow in places like the United States or Australia, they should see some benefits.

That's why, at the moment, the government of Bolivia is trying to keep control over many quinoa varieties. It won't give samples, for instance, to plant breeders in the U.S. like Murphy.

"For some of the researchers, that was a bit of a bitter pill to swallow, because they believe in free access to seeds, and to crops," says Murphy.

But Murphy doesn't have a problem with that. Bolivia is making an important point, he says.

"Nobody is doubting that quinoa production is going to go global, so we want to do it right," he says. "And doing it right means doing it with the input of the Bolivian farmers right from the beginning. You know, realizing that this is their seed, this is their sacred plant, and we need to respect that, and we need to figure out a way to compensate them for that."

At the conference, there was talk of creating a special brand for Andean quinoa, a little like the special recognition granted to other traditional foods, like Bordeaux wine.

This brand would be top-quality quinoa, and consumers might also be willing to pay extra for it, just because it would be quinoa from the land and the communities that safeguarded it for thousands of years.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

Quinoa may be the new corn. All right, that's probably a major overstatement. But over the past decade or so, millions of North Americans and Europeans have started eating the seeds of this plant. It's grown by small farmers in South America in the Andes. Now, farmers around the world are trying to get into the business. That leaves some Andean farmers wondering: What happens to us?

Here's NPR's Dan Charles.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: When European explorers and settlers arrived in the Americas, they liked some of the food they found here: corn, potatoes. They took those plants around the world. But they really had no use for quinoa, a relative of tumbleweed and spinach. It comes in all kinds of colors and grows a big lumpy head filled with thousands of tiny seeds.

In the Andes, though, people kept growing this plant. And now, it's a profitable export crop. In trendy restaurants of North American and Europe, you'll find quinoa salads, quinoa chili. It's super nutritious, also exotic.

Farmers all over the world are now starting to wonder, how do we climb onto this quinoa bandwagon? Many of them gathered this week for a kind of quinoa summit at Washington State University. There were also scientists like Jeff Maughan from Brigham Young University in Utah, who's been studying quinoa genetics.

JEFF MAUGHAN: There are people from many, many different countries representing all the continents.

CHARLES: They're trying to grow quinoa in the Pacific Northwest, in Denmark and France, in Pakistan and the African country of Malawi. Some had stories of success. There were also tales of failure. Many varieties of quinoa are only happy in the cool, dry highlands of the Andes. If it's too hot, many won't produce a harvest. Too much rain is bad too.

MAUGHAN: We're spending a lot of time just testing different varieties that have come out of the Andean countries to see if any of those will, one, survive here and, two, produce the seeds that we'd like to eat.

CHARLES: Researchers also are figuring out how to mass-produce this crop and harvest it with machines.

Kevin Murphy, the plant breeder at Washington State who organized this conference, says those practical problems can be solved. He's more worried about something else: fairness. In four or five years, quinoa will not be just a crop from the Andes anymore, he says. But what about the people of the Andes, the farmers whose ancestors kept quinoa alive through the centuries, who selected all these different varieties, what will happen to them?

KEVIN MURPHY: For me, that's the most pressing question, the most urgent question.

CHARLES: Murphy invited some Bolivian farmers to this quinoa summit and five of them came. They'd never been outside Bolivia before. Pablo Laguna was also there. He's an anthropologist - half-Bolivian, half-French - who's been working among traditional quinoa farmers, and he's become a sort of bridge between them and the outside world.

Laguna says when these farmers see all these other people trying to grow their crop, they have a couple of reactions.

PABLO LAGUNA: In one hand, they are proud of being descendents of people that selected those plants.

CHARLES: They're proud, also pragmatic, Laguna says. They know they can't stop this international appetite for quinoa. They don't even want to. It's been profitable for them. But they also feel that if they're providing this plant for competitors to grow in the U.S. or Australia, they should see some benefits. That's why, for now, the government of Bolivia is trying to keep control over many quinoa varieties. They won't give samples, for instance, to plant breeders in the U.S. like Kevin Murphy at Washington State University.

MURPHY: For some of the researchers, that was a little bit of a bitter pill to swallow because they, you know, they believe in free access to seeds and to crops.

CHARLES: But Murphy does not have a problem with it. Bolivia is making an important point, he says: We all know quinoa is going global.

MURPHY: So we want to do it right. And doing it right means doing it with the input of the Bolivian farmers right from the beginning and, you know, realizing that this is their seed, this is their sacred plant.

CHARLES: And we need to figure out a way to pay them for it, he says. At the conference, there was talk about creating a special brand for Andean quinoa like Bordeaux wine. It would be top-quality quinoa and consumers would pay extra for quinoa from the land and the communities that have grown it for thousands of years.

Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.