Quinoa is a crop with high nutritional value which sells well to overseas health food consumers. Bolivia is experiencing a quinoa boom, but do the local downsides outweigh the financial benefits for the country?
In a street market in the small Bolivian town of Challapata, vendor Juan Bueno Ochire has a variety of quinoa products on display. Juice, cake, cookies, chocolate, popcorn - you can make almost anything out of quinoa, he says.
Ochire calls quinoa 'the golden grain of the Andes', although strictly speaking it is not a grain at all, but the seed of the goosefoot plant. It looks like a larger type of couscous and comes in different colours: yellowish white, red-brown and black.
Gerardo Polo works for a community organisation which gives advice to local farmers who want to start growing quinoa. He hopes that new technologies will increase production in the industry. "We estimate that ten percent of the worldwide demand for quinoa is being satisfied at the moment," he told DW. "That means, of course, that ninety percent of the demand is currently not being met."
Global market, local impact
Said to be a big fan of quinoa himself, the Bolivian president Evo Morales has recently been promoting the crop around the world. Last summer, Morales was named Special Ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization for the International Year of Quinoa, which is to be held next year. The event was proposed by the Bolivian government and approved by the United Nations General Assembly.
Gerardo Polo says that Bolivia has a unique bargaining position in the quinoa market as it is the only place where the crop can be grown organically. For organic quinoa, plenty of sunlight and a high level of salinity in the soil is needed.
The Altiplano area in Bolivia, near the world’s biggest salt lake, Salar de Uyuni, is about four kilometers above sea level. It is one of the major quinoa producing areas in the country.
However, the rising global demand is having a detrimental effect on local availability, says Jim Shultz, who heads the think tank Democracy Center in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba.
"As the global demand for quinoa increases, it raises the prices of quinoa here in Bolivia," he points out. "You actually have low income families that used to be able to feed their children and themselves with quinoa, which is very healthy. Now, they eat white rice and low-quality pasta."
In some cases farmers have reported 45 liter sacks of quinoa selling for up to 100 US dollars (78 euro). This is a price that many locals simply cannot afford.
Meeting western tastes
Jeroen Verschoor works at Eko Plaza, an organic supermarket in Utrecht in the Netherlands. He says that he now enjoys cooking quinoa dishes at home, after hearing about it from his customers.
Verschoor doesn't have exact figures, but he guesses that sales of the product have at least doubled at his store in the last year. "It's become really popular recently," he told DW, adding that quinoa has received a lot of press in local newspapers and magazines, especially regarding it’s high nutritional value.
Quinoa products are exported from Bolivia around the world
European Union figures would seem to support Verschoor’s observations. In 2009, the EU imported around 6,500 tons of quinoa - a 48 percent increase from four years earlier. Over 90 percent of that comes from Bolivia.
It’s a major boom for a country that is desperate for an improvement to its economic development. The country now just needs to find an answer to the problem, that global success is making quinoa unaffordable for local consumers.