The United Nations declared 2013 “The International Year of Quinoa” in recognition of the indigenous communities from the Andean highlands, who have domesticized this unique crop with its high nutrient content. But the global quinoa craze started in recent years has led to an imbalance between supply and demand, and has seen other countries planting the Andean grain ‘superfood’ to secure future supply.

Quinoa has been seen in 82% of new food product launches featuring Ancient Grains in the U.S. in the last 12 months. It is being included in products ranging from snack bars and breakfast cereals to bread and baby foods. UK high-street health food retailer Holland & Barrett reported a 44% increase in sales this year compared to 2012.

Rising demand for the golden grain has led to skyrocketing prices, higher farming costs, shortages of suitable land and climate change, factors seen as threats to farmers. Paola Mejia, general manager of the Bolivian Chamber of Royal Quinoa and Organic Products Exporters – CABOLQUI told Organic & Wellness News that the 2013 International Year of Quinoa has been a great opportunity for Bolivia to expand awareness about the nutritional benefits of the versatile grain and to position the country as the leading and only producer of Royal Quinoa. This variety grows in the Uyuni salt flats, in a hostile terrain for farming other crops at 3,600 mt above sea level in the Oruro and Potosi departments.

“Bolivia differentiate the RoyalQuinoa from other varieties and grains Brown elsewhere, said Ms. Mejia. The challenge now is to satisfy the huge demand for quinoa around the world. “We are looking for strategic partners that will allow us to accelerate the development of technology to increase production of organic Royal quinoa to at least 2 million ha.” The quinoa sector was not prepared for the higher demand from established and new buyers this year. This situation has created a volatile market with prices going through the roof. “ We are worried because the price fluctuations and uncertainty has created tensions with established clients and suppliers and price speculation. Big players with deep pockets have entered the market, and approach the farmers directly in the fields in an attempt to monopolize the grain, but we hope prices will stabilize with the new crop”, said Ms. Mejia.

International buyers like Miguel Angel Montesinos of La Finestra sul Cielo Espana, owner of the Brazilian Quinua Real® brand also expect prices to be more manageable in mid-2014. “ We have secured continuous provision at least for 2014”, said Mr Montesinos, who has committed to buy and promote Royal quinoa only from ANAPQUI, the largest cooperative of organic quinoa producers in Bolivia.

Bolivia’s quinoa exports, the majority which are destined for the U.S., grew 26% between 2011 and 2012, a trade worth $800mill. According to the Bolivian National Institute of Statistics (INE) quinoa exports from grew 86,02% during the first six months of 2013 reaching USD 56,91million compared to USD 30,59 million in June 2012. FOB prices per mt for white grain went from USD 3,800 at the beginning of the year to USD 4,800 in June and will reach over USD 8,000 by the end of December.

Motivated by the quinoa boom, Ecuador, Chile and Colombia and countries outside the Andean region such as the USA, Canada, Denmark, France and even China, India and Australia are testing quinoa varieties under different farming conditions. “Many countries will go for intensive farming, but the qualities of the Royal Quinoa from Bolivia will be hard to replicate elsewhere. Bolivia plans a fivefold production increase in the next five years,” said Ms. Mejia. “Those with access to state-of-the-art equipment and infrastructure may take at least the same time to get a reasonable grain and attractive high yields.”

Since the native Bolivian Royal quinoa grows where other crops do not, this has been a natural barrier that helps Bolivian suppliers to guarantee a grain of pure varieties, not hybrids- that is mainly organic certified and free of gluten and prolamins, a group of proteins found in rice, rye and wheat that are believed to induce celiac disease in genetically predisposed individuals.

It is the only vegetal food containing the essential aminoacids and, compared to other cereals, it has a higher level of phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, iron and calcium, but with a low caloric input. This makes it a convenient food for people taking special care of their diet. Contrary to some media reports, which have suggested that the people of Bolivia are now deprived of the golden grain due to high prices, the quinoa boom has made a positive impact on thousands of quinoa farmers, who used to be considered among the poorest rural communities.

“For the first time in history, quinoa farmers are in control of their crop and prices”, says Pablo Laguna an anthropologist who has studied the impact of the Golden grain in local communities. “Currently, 80 percent of the price goes to the farmers, a situation never experienced before”. Mr. Laguna said that now quinoa farming familias may take home 5 to 20 thousand US dollars after harvest. Today quinoa farming has moved from subsistence agriculture to an attractive business that generates additional income, and complements economic activities such as transportation, trade or teaching. Many farmer families live in the city and only travel to a second home around the quinoa fields for planting and harvesting. “They eat less quinoa not because they can not afford it, but because now they have more disposable income to buy other foods they could not buy before the boom”, said Mr. Laguna. Unfortunately, as in other parts of the world, consumers, especially those not well informed, prefer cheap and highly processed foods over nutritious options that may cost more and need extra preparation. “Producers already established in the market have seen the maximum gains with the boom”, said Linett Salinas, logistics and export manager at Bolivian quinoa processor Andean Valley. “They can afford trucks and warehouses and a better infrastructure that allows them to buy directly from the smaller farmers and sell at the Challapata market or directly in the city”.

Sergio Nunez de Arco, co-founder and quinoa specialist at major U.S. supplier Andean Naturals, has been recognized as one of Time’s 13 “Gods of Food” – people who “have their own roles in working the magical thinking and eating that reaches our dinner tables”. Sergio describes the role of Andean Naturals in building bridges between quinoa farmers in Bolivia and consumers in the United States in the
article ‘Working for a Fair Reward,’ published in Time magazine.

Quinoa is becoming an increasingly commoditized product, threatening the existence of traditional growers, he warned. Consumers will have to choose: “Do they want a commodity, or do they want a product that is not just good for them but also for the environment and the hardworking farmer who grows it?” Bolivia’s main market is the USA and Canada with 48%, Europe with 28%. The rest is shared mainly between Latin America, Australia and Israel”. CABOLQUI will be present at BioFach, Germany and expects to increase its presence at shows in Asia next year. “In Bolivia we plan to grow the organic segment”, said Ms. Mejia. “While other countries will offer mainly conventional quinoa, Bolivia is still ahead of the pack with the premium organic Royal quinoa.”