The global rise of quinoa consumption has been dramatic, expanding from the Andean region in the 1970s to nearly global availability. Its rise of production has lagged behind demand, but is significant all the same. Besides gaining ground in traditional production areas of Andean Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru, fields of quinoa can now be found in Saskatchewan, Canada, Narino Colombia, Anjou, France, the U.S. states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Washington, and over other 70 countries worldwide. The majority of quinoa production and export continues to originate from Peru and Bolivia, and yet Bolivian producers are taking early steps to protect their livelihoods and communities from stiff international competition using a denomination of origin label for Bolivian Royal quinoa (Quinua Real).
According to an earlier report by OWN, quinoa imports increased by 70% in the EU and by 50% in the U.S. from 2012 to 2013. Farmers in Bolivia and Peru struggle to meet this demand by improving yields and expanding acreage. Meanwhile, research and development in the United States, Canada, and Australia work to expand the quinoa footprint outside of Peru and Bolivia. The combined production limitations and the ever-growing rates of consumption have led to high quinoa prices (increasing from $3190 to $7000 per tonne in 2014).
Recognizing the difficulty and opportunity of this situation, a coalition of Bolivian farmers, non-governmental organizations, and governmental agencies have recently pushed for and received a denomination of origin label for Bolivian quinoa, specifically Quinua Real. The label has also been recognized by CAN (la Comunidad Andina de Naciones), which includes the major world producers of quinoa, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.
The denomination of origin for Bolivian Quinua Real is expected to perform the same role as protections for French Champagne, Colombian coffee, or Mexican tequila. In each of these cases, a denomination of origin certifies the geographical origin of products and the production practices, processing, and terroir of production. Using a denomination of origin label, French Champagne makers assure that any wine sold as Champagne is in fact grown, fermented, and bottled in the Champagne region and done so according to a strict set of production and processing guidelines. This allows Champagne growers to not only reap the economic rewards of producing a distinct type of wine, but also to ensure that their wine remains embedded in the terroir of the Champagne market after entering the commodity market.
Likewise, the denomination of origin for Quinua Real in Bolivia certifies that any quinoa sold as such is in fact produced in the Southern Altiplano of Bolivia, which is recognized for its larger grain size and stronger amino acid profile. Like Champagne, it is also connected with a rich cultural tradition of production and a way of life for Bolivian quinoa farmers. Similar to the French notion of terroir, Quinua Real is not only a specific kind of grain, but also is associated with an ecological niche, a cultural history of production, and a set of work practices. For example, it can only reliably be produced in the intersalar region of the Southern Bolivian Altiplano, due to its growing requirements. Because of the relatively isolated and difficult terrain of the Southern Altiplano and the natural ability for the plant to repel pests (thanks to increased levels of Saponin in Quinua Real), it is also more likely to require manual labor. Quinua Real, like Champagne wine, cannot be identified solely through its geographic location, production practices, or ecological niche, but through all of these together.
According to David Soraide of FUNDAPO, an Oruro, Bolivia-based NGO devoted to promotion of sustainable quinoa production, the denomination of origin permits Bolivian quinoa farmers to demonstrate the unique characteristics of Royal Quinoa and also capture the associated price differential. Further, for consumers, it certifies that they are receiving a high-quality product which is superior to other quinoa types of Bolivia and the world. The label may also allow Bolivian quinoa farmers to maintain some degree of control over the quinoa market and re-embed their work, identity, and ecology into the marketed grain.
Evidence of the protection that a denomination of origin may afford is clear in the cases of maca root and chia seed. Maca, formerly locally grown and consumed in Peru has become a darling of the health food world, similar to quinoa. However in the case of maca, Peruvian producers have lost control over both the narrative of quality maca and over the market for it. Since its introduction into European and North American diets, allegations have risen of Chinese buyers purchasing and smuggling maca from Peru and selling the contraband abroad. Chia seed has similarly experienced a rapid growth of international attention and consumption, which has led to the expansion of production from Southern Mexico and Northern Guatemala to production in Australia, Argentina, and Bolivia; some United States cooperative extension agencies have even elaborated “how-to” manuals for chia production in the United States. In each of these cases, producers have lost control over markets for their products and also missed an opportunity to define their product as unique.
The denomination of origin for Bolivian Quinua Real, if enforced properly, can protect the economic and symbolic value of the regionally-produced pseudo-cereal. In so doing, the label can also ensure consumers’ knowledge of where, how, and by whom their quinoa was produced as well as informing them of the differential quality of quinoa types. Looking forward, according to Sergio Nunez de Arco, quinoa specialist at Andean Naturals, the origin label will mean little without active funding and awareness. Market forces incentivize the switching out of Bolivian Quinua Real for other lower cost varieties to lower prices and consumers often are not informed on how to tell the difference. In order to effectively counter-act the market forces of commodification, the label will require support from quinoa sellers in the form of consumer education (advertising) and the support of consumers in the form of preferential purchasing practices.