Chia seed, one of the most important ‘superfood’ crops now grown in Bolivia, was a major topic at BIOFACH 2016 in Nuremberg this year. The Netherlands’ Centre for the Promotion of Imports from developing countries (CBI) presented a Bolivian chia market overview and introduced the Bolivian Chia Consortium, a group of companies in the South American country willing to commit to a sustainable and quality supply of chia seeds.

“Through market intelligence, business development, and value chain cooperation, the Bolivian Chia Consortium strives for a stable and profitable chia sector for all stakeholders, from farm to retailer,” CBI expert Jan Willem Richelmann said.

Ambitions addressed by the Chia Consortium include:

  • Increased interaction and exchange of information between suppliers and buyers
  • Development of Common Quality Standards
  • Corporate Social and Environmental Responsibility
  • Reliable supply and volume
  • Full traceability and more research and certifications
  • A variety of (value added) chia products

Bolivia is known as an excellent productive source for speciality food ingredients such as the Royal Quinoa, a variety exclusive of its unique Uyuni Salt Flats. The country now has also become a preferred production site for Chia (Salvia Hispanica) seeds, a new upcoming ingredient found first in Jalisco Mexico and parts of Guatemala.

In Bolivia production of chia started around the year 2000. In the last few years the sector has been supported by visionaries who considered this as a long-term development for the country’s economy, CBI said.

A boom in chia took place in 2014 and prices went up with Bolivia providing 40% of the chia in South America.However, prices started falling due to an oversupply and climate issues with less chia exported by Bolivia.

Organic chia production was estimated at 6,400 tonnes in 2014 and 3,000 tonnes in 2015, and it is going through a very critical moment, according to CBI. Ecuador, Argentina, Colombia, and Peru are also growing chia.

Sustainable supply advantage for Bolivia

A significant advantage for Bolivia is that it has a sustainable supply. Bolivia is also able to provide chia during the whole year with a firm commitment from its producers, supported by supply programs. Bolivia experiences 90 days for sowing; other countries have fewer days to crop their chia because of potential frost. Chia can grow in four different regions.

Between 2012 and 2015, buyer requirements such as quality demands went up in a buyer’s market. In Bolivia, substantial investments have been made in areas that are a priority to ensure chia quality: processing, cold chambers, certifications, harvesting systems, training in quality control, among others. Quality standards have increased regarding certification and purity level.

The Bolivian Chia Consortium consists of nine companies with an agricultural chia capacity of 22.196,00 tonnes. The firms are Agro Tigre, Bolivian Shoji, Chia Corp. GCP, Gold Foods, Granicorp, La Troja, Natural Crops and La Troja Organics, an associated brand of Solum Healthy Crops.

Currently, the companies have five processing plants with an overall capacity of 27,054,000 tonnes a year including 6,833 tonnes certified as organic and enjoy a 65% production share in Bolivia. These plants are exclusively for chia seeds processing, which minimizes the possibility of cross-contamination. Another advantage Bolivian chia from the Consortium offers is a minimal possibility of salmonella contamination because they collect rainwater at their facilities, and not water from rivers near cities in the proximity.

Quality standards a challenge to address

The mission of the Bolivian Chia Consortium is to position Bolivia as a global and long-term leader in a sustainable and qualitative supply of the little Omega 3 rich seed over the next five years. The initiative includes achieving a self-regulating group with individual targets, but shared values and similar compliance to clients, and developing a platform of expertise in chia production and processing.

Regarding quality, the Bolivia Chia Consortium aims to include traceability; HACCP as a minimum; guaranteed food safety and compliance with international standards, continuously improving processes (ISO 22000). A national quality standard is in development addressing the seed nutritional value and reliability such as share & exchange of market information (buyer, supplier); periodicity in information sharing, investments in production & processing, and improved planning of supply & demand.

Along with Corporate Social Responsibility and sustainability objectives, other targets and challenges include developing a complete chia offer with added value products such as chia oil, flour, milled, pills, feedstuff, black chia, white chia, different quality grades, value chain management. The Bolivia Chia Consortium will also offer chia with various certifications and approvals such as Novel Food, Organic, GlobalGAP, Kosher, Halal, ISO 22000 and HACCP.

Mariana Zamora of CADEX, the Chamber of Exporters of Santa Cruz, Bolivia and coordinator of the Consortium believes the group of companies can help raise the standards of quality and sustainable trade of chia.

“It’s a positive sign to have nine competitors to join efforts and raise awareness regarding CSR issues, quality standards, shared values to consolidate long term business relations and highlight Bolivia’s potential as a chia supplier for the world,” Ms. Zamora said.

“Investments have been made, and all of the companies are part of the whole value chain from the fields to the delivery of the product.”

During the BIOFACH presentation, a major discussion topic was quality goals, such as purity levels and standards; nutritional levels (e.g. omega3); colour; packaging; specific certifications; and humidity. Another topic of discussion was how the chia price gets managed in the chia market due to different quality requirements in the USA and Europe. In Japan and Australia there are different standards for pesticides in soil, with Europe now demanding higher quality, said Francisco Aquino of Chia Corp.

A question from the audience was about the impact of the El Nino on chia crops in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia since 2015; unsold chia stock from previous seasons that could lower 2016 prices; recent lower prices plunged from the $10.00 a kilo of 2014 and farmers will not plant with lower prices.
The Consortium was created to avoid the pressure of pricing and to help maintain sustainable agriculture. “Some people are selling chia for $2.20 a kilo that cannot be truly organically grown or certified; there are a lot of costs to get to this such as weeding by hand,” said Mr. Aquino.

Another audience concern raised was that with many different types and colours of chia seeds and the soils that they are grown there is the need of purity standards to address the presence of lower omega three content in some seeds (those of brown colour), dirt, stones, etc.

ChiaCorp’s Mr. Aquino said that purity in chia is like the level of acidity that is used in olive oil, and that insects and soil can also be other factors to affect purity. It was addressed that even chia seeds originate in Mexico and have been produced in South America only in the past 15 years the Bolivian climate is excellent to grow chia with higher content of Omega-3 than the seeds grown in Argentina and Ecuador.
Rosita Chang of Dutch trading firm Berrico asked how customers would see a difference in quality standards with various countries promising different purity standards such as 98.6% 98.9% or 99.9% etc.

“In an increasingly demanding market there’s a need for this information to be available to all the supply chain, including all standards (EU and others) that apply to chia, seen as a raw material but we need to get added value,” Ms. Chang said.