The quinoa story: it’s complicated

by Luigi Guarino on March 28, 2011

This just in from our friend, colleague and occasional subject Hannes Dempewolf. Our thanks to him and all the others that contributed to the discussion on quinoa he initiated.

The New York Times just published an article, entitled “Quinoa’s Global Success Creates Quandary at Home”. The article reminded me of a case study that Damiana Astudillo put together a few years ago as part of Bioversity’s research effort on neglected and underutilized species, which essentially told the same story. Damiana succinctly summarized the conclusion of this study as: “international markets price Bolivians out of the consumer’s market and thus further contributing to malnutrition (among certain segments of the population).” I therefore proceeded to share the article with Damiana as well as a few other colleagues that I knew would be interested and received some interesting replies, including one from Michael Hermann of the recently established Crops for the Future organization, and also from Damiana herself.

Michael begs to differ, and he blames the high production costs of the crop (i.e. low productivity) and the crop’s value chain (insufficient agronomic and post-harvest technologies, insufficient distribution chains, no subsidies) for the price hikes that render quinoa unaffordable for many Bolivians. On the upside, he cites increased incomes for farmers that go along with the higher price of quinoa in the domestic and international marketplace and hopes that Bolivia will see an increase in its middle-class with higher purchasing power, as has happened in neighboring Peru. A wealthier middle-class increasingly turns to purchasing native products, just as the well-to-do have done in industrialized countries. Such up-market niches are where he sees a lot of the current revival and growing market share of native food products. Once such native food products are en vogue again, he hopes for the trend to trickle down to less affluent consumers, who by then can hopefully buy such products at lower costs if increased demand has led to higher efficiency of the value chain and production of the crop.

So, until that happens, less affluent consumers just have to deal with the effects of malnutrition, you may ask? Not so! According to Hermann, consumption levels are so low or non-existent for quinoa and other native grains in Bolivia, prohibitive quinoa prices can’t have much of a nutrition impact. More importantly, Hermann says, one gets significantly more protein, energy and minerals out of wheat products that are offered at a much lower price.

Damiana countered that even addressing some of the inefficiencies in the production system won’t ever allow quinoa to be sold at a lower price than wheat and rice — to a large extent because of enormous subsidies from the producing countries, which seems unlikely to change any time soon. She also adds that the quinoa story is more complex than one might think on a socio-economic level, since she says it is crucial that one distinguishes between urban and rural populations. Bolivians that live in urban settings often have access to a variety of other nutritious foods at affordable prices (such as fruits, vegetables, milk and some meats), whereas this is not true for most people in quinoa producing communities in rural areas of the Bolivian Altiplano. People in rural communities are mostly eating white rice, foods prepared with white flour and non-enriched pasta made of white flour — all of them poor in nutrients. So even though quinoa farmers might have additional income, they cannot spend it on a diverse array of other foods to complement their diets. This is not to say, she further adds, that the promotion of neglected or under-utilized species is a bad idea, since the additional incomes for rural farmers is often used for better education for their kids, but it does provide a useful perspective to the “nostalgic view on neglected and underutilized species” held by some.

Additional problems may arise from the higher prices of quinoa, as people who immigrated a long time ago from quinoa producing areas, lured by the high prices return to the communities to claim back their land to produce quinoa. However, they do not stay in the communities but rather hire local labor and are present only around harvest time. This has created tensions, as those temporary residents are not in the community to participate in community-wide actions such as those required to maintain their certifications or to fight pests through light traps campaigns.

Hermann agrees that the expansion of the quinoa area for export is becoming a problem: but for a different reason, and one that the NY Times article fails to mention. On recent trips in Bolivia he encountered frequently complaints about steadily declining quinoa yields. At the same time, quinoa is expanding into areas unsuited for its cultivation, in order to meet the demand for organically certified produce under various private and public labels. This expansion includes steep and erosion-prone areas. Invariably, Hermann observes, the organic standards only allow the application of organic fertilizers, effectively restricting fertilization to locally available animal dung. Owing to the scarcity of animal dung in the Altiplano (due to low animal densities), the sharp increase of quinoa production in recent years has only been sustained by soil mining (the consistent net extraction of nutrients from the soil) and shortened fallow periods, leading to soil degradation. The decline in soil fertility induced by organically certified quinoa cropping has been observed repeatedly, but commercially motivated demands that the “purity” of quinoa production be maintained and the organic quality standards be met, have prevented a rational, science-based modification of fertilization standards (including the option of the use of mineral fertilizers to replace nutrients removed by harvested produce), that takes into account the radically different soil conditions in the Altiplano from those in Europe, under which the standards have been developed.

So where does this leave us, with regards to the promotion of neglected and underutilized species? If heavy promotion of such crops on international markets leads to higher prices for producers and consumers in the production country, are we better off by not promoting them at all? This seems to be an unwise choice, since the lack of attention to those crops has led to the current problem of inefficient value chains, low crop productivity and in some cases the complete abandonment of the species in the first place. I suggest that targeted investments in crop improvement programs, conservation efforts as well as the development of agronomic techniques for such species are essential to boosting their productivity. In addition, these improvements need to go hand in hand with sound socio-economic policies that are informed by cautionary cases, such as the quinoa example, and include interventions that keep the dinner plates of less affluent members of society (also in rural areas) as nutritionally well-balanced as they used to be.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave Wood March 28, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Luigi: One problem with more research of crops such as quinoa is that it could move production to developed countries. After many years in Latin America, we are big quinoa eaters. But when we came to live in northern Scotland – 58 degrees north – we came across excellent quinoa growing in the field margins left, with government subsidies, for overwintering food for birds. Quinoa could easily be produced in Britain for human food presumably lowering the cost to Bolivian consumers, or putting farmers out of business – as beet sugar did with cane sugar farmers. We could easily also grow Phaseolus beans but choose to import. But if prices went up if beans became a cult food, farmers in the UK could step in and grow our own.

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Kevin Mayes March 30, 2011 at 10:32 am

Dave, I think there is a problem with growing Quinoa in a temperate Maritime climate such as ours. I did consider it here in NZ but refrained. It seems it needs a cold dry end to the growing season to dessicate the plants and ripen the grain evenly and thus works best in a continental climate. No problem for in-situ bird forage, of course- in fact an advantage as it would provide feed over an extended period. Of course it might be possible to use a crop dessicant, but not very organic!

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Linda March 29, 2011 at 7:24 am

“More importantly, Hermann says, one gets significantly more protein, energy and minerals out of wheat products that are offered at a much lower price.”

How could this be? Quinoa is higher in protein than wheat, has a superior amino acid profile, and is a rich source of polyphenol compounds. Quinoa is also higher in minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, copper, zinc and iron than wheat.
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19878856

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Jeremy March 29, 2011 at 8:33 am

We’ll have to await Michael Hermann’s substantiation of his claim, but there is one possibility. Perhaps wheat is so much cheaper than quinoa that people can eat enough of it that they make up in quantity what wheat lacks in quality. As noted in the piece, that seems unlikely, especially for rural dwellers.

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sergio March 29, 2011 at 7:27 am

Very intelligent discussion and very good points brought forward. Particluarly the sustainability point, which we’re paying close attention to. As the main buyers of quinoa in Bolivia we make sure that our suppliers have sustainability plans in place. We’re also not too eager for quinoa prices to drop: as is an average farmer makes $90 per month. This is 3 x more than they made 4 years ago — when they barely subsisted, could not put their kids in school and most often tried to emigrate to the cities, at least for a few months in order to beg or find some sort of work (coca farming is very attractive). Today the reverse is true: people are going back to the countryside, in order to plant quinoa. Quinoa today is being grown in areas where there previously were no crops at all. This in itself is a success. We must of course figure out how to keep it going and protect the farmers long term. Prices will drop as soon as other producing countries catch up — and it will be back to $30 per month for farmers — unless consumers choose to pay a fair trade price for quinoa… it really is in the hands of consumers. But they need to be educated first.

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Michael March 29, 2011 at 9:04 pm

I am curious to know how Sergio as a “main buyer of quinoa” makes sure that producers have “sustainability plans” in place. I haven’t come across any in Bolivia except for the application of “organic” certification schemes that, although well-intentioned, seemingly lead to soil mining because of the dogmatic prohibition of mineral fertilization. Also, expansion of quinoa in areas previously not used for agriculture, is not necessarily an achievement but could indicate encroachment of quinoa into unsuitable areas. Indeed, quinoa stakeholders in Bolivia complain about the cropping of quinoa on erosion-prone sloped land. Would quinoa importers be willing to finance scientific work to examine the sustainability of the sector?

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Sergio Nunez de Arco January 27, 2013 at 5:18 am

Hi Michael,

I just saw your comment- after finding this discussion linked in one of the recent articles (you know, with all the recent negative articles around quinoa). Sorry for not replying earlier. Yes, we’d be willing to finance scientific work to examine sustainability in the sector. We invested $60.000 last year in field trials, improved equipment and organic inputs (mainly the inclusion of a humic extract along with llama dung, dispersed at the time of planting along with the seeds). With the grower groups we work with directly we currently provide an agronomist and a field team that measure the nutrients in the soil on GPS delimited fields, along with yields to track sustainability. The agronomist is also promoting planting of live barriers to reduce wind erosion. Another large group we work with, ANAPQUI, invests their fair trade premiums on their sustainability programs, financing their field technicians and agronomists. We are aware of the delicate environment in Bolivia where quinoa is planted and how important it is for the farmers who depend on it. We’re committed to sustainable agriculture and are- or course- willing to invest to make sure it is sustainable. As a B-Corp our company uses environmental markets as a measure of its success- and those include yields and soil fertility. Again, we’re open to exploring solutions with all the stakeholders and experts- thank you for your ideas.

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Madeline McKeever March 29, 2011 at 11:44 pm

Quinoa grows well here in south west Ireland. I am still unsure how to remove the saponins from the seeds. Can anybody tell me how to do it?

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Jeremy March 30, 2011 at 9:44 am

If you were in Boliva, you would “toast seeds, tread on them barefoot while the grains are still hot to loosen the saponin, then winnow them repeatedly to remove it. Finally grains are rinsed in water and dried. Processing only 12 kilograms of quinoa can take 6 hours.”

There’s lots more about this, in an old Bioversity Annual Report and a little podcast interview with Damiana Astudillo.

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Michael Hermann March 31, 2011 at 6:56 am

Here is some data to support my claim that a dollar spent on wheat (or its derivatives such as bread and noodles) buys you more food and nutrients in Bolivia than a dollar worth of quinoa. Let’s assume that quinoa is about 3 times as expensive as wheat/bread, a plausible ratio at the retail level and actually considerably lower than the one indicated in the NYTimes piece (4.85 for comparison quinoa/noodles).

Here is the content of 4 nutrients in quinoa vis-à-vis wheat products (Wikipedia, rounded figures, per 100 g)

Quinoa is indeed superior for protein content and quality, and a number of other nutrients (not for all though!). Also, quinoa is eaten as whole grain, while wheat is mostly eaten processed into bread/noodles, typically from refined flour obtained by removing the germ and bran during milling and with it a large proportion of micronutrients.

However, in most countries wheat flour is fortified and some of the micro-nutrients lost during milling are added. But even if we assume that bread is made from refined unfortified wheat flour, applying some sophisticated mathematics to the figures in the table shows that one dollar spent on bread still buys you 70% more protein, and 200% more starch (energy) than if you bought quinoa. You will also get more iron and zinc and possibly other nutrients. If you allow for some of the flour used for bread in Bolivia to be partly whole grain or fortified, the comparison looks even more favorable for wheat.

“But quinoa protein has a better amino acid profile” I hear the quinoa enthusiasts say. Yes, it has, but how relevant is that quantitatively, and particularly in a country whose poor highland population subsists on potatoes with a protein that is at least as good as quinoa’s?

Now, if you had one dollar to spend on food per day, what would you go for? I guess I’d have bread, and sprinkle a little quinoa in my “caldo de gallina”…

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C DAVID January 21, 2012 at 5:47 pm

Is anybody testing quinoa, for lead levels? My wife and I both
big quinoa eaters, have recently (last six months) turned up
with high burden of lead, and even with extensive chelation
are maintaining these levels. This suggests that we are
having a constant dose of lead in our diet or water. On contacting
Bob’s Red Mill our quinoa source, for information on testing
mineral levels, and heavy metals analysis in their quinoa
the answer was that they did not test. With the changes in
farming practice, to more marginal lands, and demineralization
of the beneficial minerals with intensive cropping, I am wondering
if lead and cadmium levels would be rising in these crops?
The writer’s above are correct that to not be adding beneficial
soil minerals, is a poor farming practice.
We have eaten quinoa, for years prior to this one with no
problems. What is changing that would cause harmful
minerals levels to rise this much?

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Sergio Nunez de Arco January 27, 2013 at 5:23 am

C David, we test for heavy chemicals on the Bolivian side and have had no presence of these. I have a recent test I can share with those interested. On the organics we’ve found that in areas where other crops grow (mainly around Lake Titicaca and into the Arequipa region) there is use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides including residues of metamidophos and cypermethrine, which are a source of concern for us. We’d rather stick to organics. 95% of our imports are certified organic. Bob’s Red Mill Bolivian quinoa comes from the salt flat areas and I am certain that this is not the source of the lead contamination.

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John Thee April 5, 2013 at 5:47 am

there are many areas for growing quinoa that will surely bring down the price and subsistence will again prevail in the altiplano

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