In 500 A.D., the powerful Tiwanaku civilization was growing on the shores of Lake Titicaca in what is now Bolivia. University of Chicago anthropologist Alan Kolata’s research in Bolivia shows that the principal food nourishing that society was quinoa, which was heavily farmed through raised-field agriculture. After the Spanish conquest of Bolivia quinoa took a backseat to potatoes and corn, but now the same food that nourished the Tiwanaku Empire is coming back.
Quinoa is a species of goosefoot. Despite appearances, it is not a grain – it is instead related to spinach and beets. Today, these small seeds with a light, nutty taste are quickly catching on as a health food across the United States and Europe. In fact, quinoa imports to the United States rose from 7.4 million pounds in 2007 to 18.6 million pounds in 2009, according to statistics from the U.S. Customs Service. This dramatic increase in demand has changed the lives of Bolivia’s indigenous quinoa farmers who, like their ancestors, sow and harvest the plant.
Much of Bolivia’s quinoa grows in the southwest of the country on the edges of vast salt flats near towns like Salinas de Garcí Mendoza. During the April to June harvest that quinoa is on the move to more central market Andean towns like Challapata and Huari.
Laida Mamani Nina is an agriculture student who comes from a family with a long history of farming quinoa in Salinas de Garcí Mendoza. She travels to Huari during the harvest to help her father sell quinoa. “It’s changed everyone’s life,” she says of the increase in quinoa prices over the past 15 years. “Everyone has a car now, better incomes and better houses.”
That’s not to say that most quinoa farmers are rich – just doing better. Mamani Nina said her family sold 100 pounds of quinoa for $7 in the 1980s. Now the same amount of high-quality organic quinoa can sell for more than $100.
Quinoa flourishes in environments like those around Salinas de Garcí Mendoza, which is a testament to its hardiness. The soil is salty and dry, and the town is located more than 12,000 feet above sea level. But quinoa grows as well as, if not better in these harsh Andean environments than anywhere else in the world. In fact, Kolata believes quinoa first developed on these high plains.
The Inca Empire expanded from modern-day Peru down into Bolivia in the mid-1400s. That civilization was also fueled by quinoa, but the Spanish conquest put an end to its large-scale cultivation. “Quinoa did not fit cosmopolitan European tastes,” Kolata said. “They preferred wheat for bread and grapes for wine,” as opposed to bread made from quinoa flour, or alcoholic drinks made from mashed quinoa seeds.
After the Spanish arrived, for hundreds of years indigenous Bolivians grew quinoa as a subsistence crop or for local sale. That changed when studies on quinoa’s nutritional value and organized marketing brought it to the attention of European and North American consumers in the late 90s, and as Peruvian consumption also increased.
Several things make quinoa so nutritionally special. It contains more protein and fat than rice and corn, and fewer carbohydrates. But what really draws attention is its array of amino acids, including lysine, which is unusual in plants.
As quinoa’s popularity and profitability grow, groups of farmers and exporters are jockeying to establish their region’s quinoa as organic, fair trade and a recognizable brand. As the world’s largest quinoa exporters, Bolivia and Peru have the most to gain.
Individual farmers also have much to gain. Many are extending their fields and planting them more frequently. Sergio Nunez de Arco, general manager of U.S.-based quinoa importer Andean Naturals, worries that increased production is already taxing the land. “There used to be a balance between the quinoa, llamas and fallow time, and now that balance has been broken. Sustainable needs to be defined for that area.”
Nunez de Arco said Andean Naturals is financing a 1,200 acre sustainable-development project in Bolivia to determine how quinoa production can be increased without damaging the land.
Though several Bolivian and foreign organizations are sponsoring sustainability projects, Mamani Nina said hope for profit originally trumped concern for the environment. “The majority of the people don’t think about the environment, they think about their incomes,” she said of increased quinoa production. “But there are more people who are thinking about organic quinoa, and about protecting the environment, little by little.”