LA PAZ, Bolivia — On the Bolivian high plains, stalks of wheat nod their heavy heads on breezes, potatoes are pulled from the earth and red, green and yellow quinoa plants color the flat landscape like strokes from a paintbrush. Quinoa developed and was domesticated on the high plains of Bolivia and Peru thousands of years ago, where it was cultivated extensively by the Inca Empire and the earlier Tiwanaku civilization. But only in the past five years has its value to farmers has jumped through the roof, with international markets suddenly taking an interest in this nutritious food. This demand has changed the lives of quinoa farmers in Bolivia, which is the world’s largest quinoa exporter.
Light, nutty-tasting quinoa is not a grain; it’s a chenopod, related to beets and spinach. With more protein and fat and fewer carbohydrates than equal amounts of corn or rice, it’s becoming a popular health food. But quinoa’s most surprising nutritional aspect is a balance of amino acids, including lysine, found in precious few other plants. During harvest, farmers bring quinoa from isolated areas on the edges of Bolivia’s huge salt flats, where it grows in the dry, salty soil, to more central market towns.
At the bustling quinoa market in the small town of Huari, buyers and sellers line a dirt road showing sacks of smooth white and wine-red seeds. Laida Mamani Nina is an agriculture student and comes from a family with a long history of farming quinoa in Salinas de Garci Mendoza. She travels to Huari during the harvest to help her father sell quinoa there. “It’s changed everyone’s life,” she said of the increase in quinoa prices over the past 15 years. “Everyone has a car now, better incomes and better houses.” In the 1980s, 100 pounds of quinoa sold for $7 inside Bolivia. Now the same amount of high-quality organic quinoa can sell for more than $100 to vendors in the United States or Europe.
As the price of quinoa has risen, migration from the rural communities where it’s grown has dropped significantly. Miguel Choque Llanos, the commercial director of Bolivia’s National Association of Quinoa Producers, says that instead of moving to the nearest large city or to a nearby country where there’s better earning potential, people now stay put and reap the rewards of quinoa. Bolivia exported 6,451 metric tons of quinoa to the United States in 2009, up from 1,473 metric tons in 2005. Now that quinoa is in the spotlight, small-scale entrepreneurs are thinking of ways to make this old food new.
Small quinoa breakfast cereal, energy bar and even beer businesses are springing up around Bolivia. Cristian Quispe brews quinoa beer in a lab at his family’s home in the southern Bolivia city of Potosi. His father, an agricultural engineer, decided quinoa beer was a good idea several years ago and charged Quispe, who was in college, with running the show. Currently Quispe produces 1,200 bottles of the blonde, smooth and slightly sweet beer a month. He sells all of them in Bolivia, half to hotels on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, where passing tourists sample it, and several hundred more to upscale restaurants in La Paz. But being a small-scale producer is a constant struggle. On top of brewing all the beer himself,
Quispe must design and produce bottles, create labels, get the proper licenses and find out how to transport his beer around the country. And he faces another problem. Many Bolivians are dedicated to a few established brands of beer, which they drink liberally, and not keen to take this different-looking, different-tasting beer to heart. “It’s very different to see sediment in beer in Bolivia,” he said. "You have to explain what it is to people one at a time.” Most of Quispe’s sales are to foreigners, who can’t tote home suitcases stuffed with glass bottles. Quispe hopes to debut two new quinoa beers this year. If he can find out how to economically move the bottles into the hands of thirsty tourists, a dizzying red and heavily toasted black beer are the next step. For now he says that exporting beyond Bolivia is way beyond his production potential and transport budget, but it’s a nice dream.
Quinoa’s new international popularity isn’t all positive. Many lower-income Bolivians can no longer afford to buy it, and settle for cheaper rice and potatoes instead. In addition, some environmentalists and exporters worry that the dramatically increased production that followed increased prices will harm the fragile plains environment. Several quinoa export organizations have sustainability projects underway, but it may take time for the benefits of carefully protecting the delicate plains soil to take precedence over good money earned by a larger quinoa crop. “The producer isn’t doing it because he wants to harm the land, but nothing else grows there and quinoa is their only source of income,” said Choque Llanos of increased planting. “It’s going to take time to see the results, but people are starting to understand.”