The UN has recently declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa turning the world’s attention on this native Andean grain, which has good nutritional value and a long history of use by native Andean communities. UN resolution 66/221 also hints at the income opportunities that have resulted from the strongly growing demand of quinoa in export markets, especially in the health food segment. In Bolivia, the main quinoa producing country, the export (FOB) value of quinoa was US$ 46 million in 2011, up from US$ 2 million in 2000 (source: MAGDER, Bolivia), translating into an average annual growth rate of 33%!
Quinoa’s success hasn’t all been plain sailing though. News of soaring domestic quinoa prices to levels at which poor Bolivians can no longer afford the “superfood”, have even been picked up by international media. However, complaints about the alienation of Andean people from their traditional diets mostly ignore that quinoa has never been a significant staple in the Andes and is inconvenient to use. Moreover, income from high-value export quinoa allows rural producers to diversify their diets in terms of greater meat and vegetable consumption. On a weight basis, quinoa is nutritionally superior to other common starchy grains in the Andes such as wheat and rice, but a dollar spent on these commodities, because of their much lower cost, buys significantly more protein, energy and even minerals.
Much more worrisome than nutritional concerns seems to be the resource degradation believed by some to have accompanied the quinoa boom of the last few years, as described in a paper by Sven Jacobsen of the University of Copenhagen. His description of expansion of quinoa cultivation into unsuited and sloped land, the use of deep ploughing of fragile soils, and soil mining has been rebuked by Winkel et al. (2012), but it resonates with our own travel impressions and other reports of declining quinoa yields and increasing soil erosion in the Southern Bolivian Altiplano.
Despite a growing perception of the decline in soil fertility of quinoa growing areas, commercially motivated demands abound that the “purity” of quinoa production be maintained, and that only organic fertilisers be used in quinoa production as required by “organic” quality standards in export markets. However, animal dung in the Altiplano is often scarce or unavailable, and because of shortened or non-existent fallow periods, it is plausible that there is net extraction of nutrients from the soil. It would be worth a study to determine, whether in the name of certified organic production methods so dear to distant quinoa consumers, the application of rational and science-based fertilisation practices -including the use of mineral fertilisers to replenish nutrients removed by harvested produce- is being prevented?