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Agriculture

The two sides of Bolivia's quinoa boom

Quinoa is a crop with high nutritional value which sells well to overseas health food consumers. Bolivia is experiencing a quinoa boom, but do the local downsides outweigh the financial benefits for the country?

In a street market in the small Bolivian town of Challapata, vendor Juan Bueno Ochire has a variety of quinoa products on display. Juice, cake, cookies, chocolate, popcorn - you can make almost anything out of quinoa, he says.

A close up of the goosefoot plant, in a field in France. (Photo credit should read ALAIN JOCARD/AFP/Getty Images)

Quinoa was first grown by the Incas

Ochire calls quinoa 'the golden grain of the Andes', although strictly speaking it is not a grain at all, but the seed of the goosefoot plant. It looks like a larger type of couscous and comes in different colours: yellowish white, red-brown and black.

Gerardo Polo works for a community organisation which gives advice to local farmers who want to start growing quinoa. He hopes that new technologies will increase production in the industry.  "We estimate that ten percent of the worldwide demand for quinoa is being satisfied at the moment," he told DW. "That means, of course, that ninety percent of the demand is currently not being met."

Global market, local impact

Said to be a big fan of quinoa himself, the Bolivian president Evo Morales has recently been promoting the crop around the world. Last summer, Morales was named Special Ambassador to the Food and Agriculture Organization for the International Year of Quinoa, which is to be held next year. The event was proposed by the Bolivian government and approved by the United Nations General Assembly.

Gerardo Polo says that Bolivia has a unique bargaining position in the quinoa market as it is the only place where  the crop can be grown organically. For organic quinoa, plenty of sunlight and a high level of salinity in the soil is needed.

The Altiplano area in Bolivia, near the world’s biggest salt lake, Salar de Uyuni, is about four kilometers above sea level. It is one of the major quinoa producing areas in the country.

Description of foto: Benjamin Huarachi Flores, a quinoa producer, opens a bag of quinoa on the market of Challapata.
Title Quinoa market
Series Title in case there are several pictures about one topic Quinoa in Bolivia
Tags quinoa, Bolivia
Name of the photographer/or scource Peter Teffer
When was the pic taken? (July 2012)
Where was the pic taken Challapata, Bolivia
Description of the pic /occasion , situation when pic was taken, whom or what does the pic show?
Benjamin Huarachi Flores opens a bag of quinoa on the market of Challapata. Huarachi Flores is a quinoa producer himself and tries to advance organic production of quinoa, which is only possible in Bolivia.
Rechteeinräumung: (I hereby declare that I took this pic and giving DW the right to use it online. In case the picture was taken by a third party, I do hold the rights to this image and DW is entitled to use it online.)
Hiermit räume ich der Deutschen Welle das Recht ein, das/die von mir bereitgestellte/n Bild/er zeitlich, räumlich und inhaltlich unbeschränkt zu nutzen. Ich versichere, dass ich das/die Bild/er selbst gemacht habe und dass ich die hier übertragenen Rechte nicht bereits einem Dritten zur exklusiven Nutzung eingeräumt habe.Sofern ich das hiermit zugesandte Bild nicht selbst gemacht, sondern von einem Dritten, dem o.g. Fotografen, zugeliefert bekommen habe, versichere ich, dass mir dieser Dritte die zeitlich, räumlich und inhaltlich unbeschränkten Nutzung auf der Internet Plattform DW.DE übertragen hat und mir schriftlich versichert hat, dass er das/die Bild/er selbst gemacht und die Rechte hieran nicht bereits Dritten zur exklusiven Nutzung eingeräumt hat.

Quinoa is normally traded in 45 kilogram sacks, called quintals

However, the rising global demand is having a detrimental effect on local availability, says Jim Shultz, who heads the think tank Democracy Center in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba.

"As the global demand for quinoa increases, it raises the prices of quinoa here in Bolivia," he points out. "You actually have low income families that used to be able to feed their children and themselves with quinoa, which is very healthy. Now, they eat white rice and low-quality pasta." 

In some cases farmers have reported 45 liter sacks of quinoa selling for up to 100 US dollars (78 euro). This is a price that many locals simply cannot afford.

Meeting western tastes

Jeroen Verschoor works at Eko Plaza, an organic supermarket in Utrecht in the Netherlands. He says that he now enjoys cooking quinoa dishes at home, after hearing about it from his customers.

Verschoor doesn't have exact figures, but he guesses that sales of the product have at least doubled at his store in the last year. "It's become really popular recently," he told DW, adding that quinoa has received a lot of press in local newspapers and magazines, especially regarding it’s high nutritional value.

Quinoa products on display in a shop window

Quinoa products are exported from Bolivia around the world

European Union figures would seem to support Verschoor’s observations. In 2009, the EU imported around 6,500 tons of quinoa - a 48 percent increase from four years earlier. Over 90 percent of that comes from Bolivia.

It’s a major boom for a country that is desperate for an improvement to its economic development. The country now just needs to find an answer to the problem, that global success is making quinoa unaffordable for local consumers.

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