Letter from Bolivia — From the May 2014 issue

The Quinoa Quarrel

Who owns the world’s greatest superfood?

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At the sixty-sixth session of the United Nations, the General Assembly named 2013 the International Year of Quinoa. When I tell people that, they often laugh — most Americans know quinoa as the latest in a string of superfoods that cycle through the shelves and bulk bins of their local high-end grocery. But this grainlike seed is not another blue-green algae or pomegranate juice. Indeed, in the context of a looming global crisis, the darling of the Whole Foods set may be a godsend.

As the earth’s population approaches 9 billion, the Malthusian prediction that humans will outgrow our ability to feed ourselves seems increasingly plausible. Meanwhile, agriculture faces a slew of environmental challenges: erosion, desertification, salinization, water scarcity, and, of course, climate change.

Photographs by the author

Photographs by the author

Quinoa might be a big part of the solution. It provides significant amounts of calcium, iron, fiber, essential fatty acids, and vitamin E, and is (unlike any other plant food in the world) a complete protein, with adequate stores of all nine of the amino acids that the body can’t synthesize itself. More to the point, it is remarkably resilient. It thrives in soil saturated with salt. It tolerates cold and drought. Sven-Erik Jacobsen, a Danish agronomist who has studied the plant for more than twenty years, put it this way: “If you ask for one crop that can save the world and address climate change, nutrition, all these things — the answer is quinoa. There’s no doubt about it.”

Except for one problem. Chenopodium quinoa is native to South America’s Andean Plateau, better known as the Altiplano. The region stretches from Peru to Argentina but is mostly within Bolivia, nearly all of it above 12,000 feet. It’s a lean environment. The soil is composed of ash and igneous rock, and is hardened by frost roughly half the year. Precipitation is scanty — mostly on par with North America’s Sonoran Desert. Quinoa’s uncanny resilience arises from this very harshness, but it comes at a cost: the plant doesn’t automatically flourish in other conditions, even those that might seem more hospitable. To grow outside the Altiplano, it must be adapted.

This should be a manageable task for plant breeders. Potatoes, brought down from the Andes by the conquistadors, have been bred to grow on six continents. Quinoa, by contrast, remains essentially the same plant it was when Francisco Pizarro vanquished the Inca. But that could soon change. American geneticists produced a partial map of the quinoa genome in 2012 and anticipate a complete map by 2015. They have also identified nearly a thousand molecular markers, which allow breeders to screen plants for desired genes and could be used to breed high-caliber modern varieties.

However, the germplasm — meaning the seeds that are the necessary raw material for the breeding process — is not free for the taking, the way potatoes were when the Spanish showed up. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a handful of governments around the world hold small, freely shared collections, most varieties of quinoa are off-limits. Who is to blame? It’s not the usual suspect — some multinational corporation with a full portfolio of patents and evil intentions. This time, the germplasm is being withheld by the Andean nations themselves.

Two of these nations — Bolivia and Ecuador — are among the most impoverished in the Western Hemisphere, which leads to an uncomfortable standoff: the poor of the Andes pitted against the poor of the world. When I discussed this conflict with Salomón Salcedo, a senior policy officer at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, he alternated gingerly between the two sides of the issue. Ultimately, he opted for the global view: “When we’re talking about people who die every day because they don’t have enough to eat, then I think that sharing is a must.”

For many who see it this way, Bolivia is an object of special contempt. Its gene banks contain far more quinoa varieties than any other country’s, yet the Bolivians are dead set against sharing them. This is not only popular sentiment but also official policy: the indigenous-dominated government of President Evo Morales has declared a fierce commitment to nationalizing Bolivia’s resources. The country’s prohibition on sharing germplasm began two decades ago, long before Morales came to power, but it was reinforced in the 2009 constitution written by his Movement for Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP) party, and again in subsequent legislation.

Within Bolivia, the topic is a hornet’s nest. If you ever want to torpedo a conversation with one of the country’s agricultural scientists, just mention la propiedad intelectual — intellectual-property rights. The government is equally skittish, its officials evasive and prone to take shelter behind bits of harmless boilerplate. That’s because the issue goes much deeper than mere agricultural policy, especially for Bolivia’s quinoa farmers and indigenous majority. For them, it’s about preserving the country’s identity and self-reliance. As one farmer explained to me, his machete hanging from his shoulder like a rifle, “Esto es sobre la soberanía alimentaria.” This is about food sovereignty.

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is the author of Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness. This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN), an independent nonprofit focusing on food, agriculture, and environmental-health issues.

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  • Raymond Del Colle

    “Ask any climate scientist: Carbon pollution from dirty energy is the main cause of global warming.” http://clmtr.lt/c/FCg0cd0cMJ

  • Marie

    What are the real causes of world hunger? Scarcity? It seems like in the United States there is enough food to throw away half of it and still have an obesity problem. I sympathize with Bolivia’s protectionism, especially when the question of food scarcity is being used as a pretext to gain access to quinoa. If we were to make a more honest attempt to resolve the question of persistent hunger amid ever increasing food production and the perverse and despicable waste of food and land, maybe we would see the absurdity in picking on Bolivian quinoa farmers for protecting their (culturally precious) crop against genetic manipulation.

    • Natalie

      Yes but most of our food is corn and soy based- the quinoa is healthier and heartier than corn and soy and requires less resources ( water, soil, fertilizer) to grow. I am not for picking on farmers in Bolivia either but this is a matter of human survival. Hopefully a solution can be found as it seems Bolivia’s government cannot secure the seeds.

  • Gail Nickel-Kailing

    I beg to disagree with you – quinoa will indeed flourish outside the Andean Plateau!

    In August, we attended the International Quinoa Symposium (our coverage: http://www.goodfoodworld.com/2013/08/quinoa-the-passion-and-the-politics/) where we met scientists and farmers from two dozen countries around the world. All of them are testing a huge number of quinoa varieties under a wide range of growing conditions. And many are having success.

    Frank Morton, Wild Garden Seed, has been growing several varieties of quinoa in Oregon for decades and he sells seed to dedicated gardeners, small farmers, and university plant breeders.

    Dr. Kevin Murphy, Washington State University, Pullman WA (host of the symposium) has been breeding and field testing quinoa along with other pseudo grains like amaranth for the last five years. Last year (2013) the first large scale field trials went into place and he expects to commercialize some of these varieties next year (2015).

    Please take a look at what we have written and what Kevin is doing – quinoa is NOT a peasant food grown only in the high mountains of the Andes. It can be grown in the salt flats of Egypt, on farms in Africa, and in fields in Washington and Oregon.

  • Martine Smith

    Did Jellen really say, “I’d give that seed to Monsanto if they wanted to use it”????? Heaven help us.

  • Rick Jellen

    A few comments on these comments.
    @Martine Smith: Yes, I really said – and meant – that. I believe in free exchange of seed under the conditions currently supported by the U.S. government thru USDA-NPGS. That being said – I completely honor agreements with foreign institutions that have different rules and have trusted me with their seed for research purposes.

    @Gail Nickel-Kailing: Jeff and I work closely with Kevin Murphy and were also at the August 2013 Symposium (did we meet then? I can’t remember…). If you look closely at the seed in our joint research trials, you will see that the genetic base is – in my opinion – dangerously narrow. Most significantly, that germplasm comes from areas of South America where the disease and insect pest spectrum is totally different from Eurasia and North America. Basic evolutionary biology theory tells us to expect that pests and diseases will attack the crop and, unless we start making significant efforts to introduce resistance genes from wild chenopods adapted to conditions in Eurasia and North America thru selective breeding (notice Martine, I am not suggesting transgenic approaches :-) we are going to lose this evolutionary race. My point is that I don’t want to see relatively poor farmers in Egypt, Morocco, Malawi, and Pakistan that in 5-10 years will have gone to quinoa monoculture become the first to suffer these consequences. They don’t have crop insurance like our friends in Washington and Oregon.

  • Cajsa Lilliehook

    Really, in the coming era of food scarcity, you are going to blame Bolivia instead of Monsanto and the entire system of patenting seeds? The author’s first error was in framing this as the Bolivian farmers versus the poor of the world. It’s really about American agribusiness as buried deep in the article is the fact that Bolivia did share their germplasm until American researchers got a patent on their variation of it. How dare the people of Bolivia try to preserve their assets when that is only acceptable for the Monsantos of the world.

  • Wayne Roberts

    There’s lots of great information in this article, but I find the thesis to be simplistic in at least two respects.
    First, as I try to show in the No Nonsense Guide to World Food, we are long past the time when food system critics can make a claim that there’s a one-crop solution to the world’s problems. The line-up of suppressed and forgotten crops that would be better for human health and ecosystems than today’s dominant staples is a long one, as is the list of food system practices (let’s start with waste reduction and reuse) that could greatly increase food productivity.
    Secondly, it is simply wrong to present the debate around carriage over quinoa as pitting the food sovereignty rights of people in one country (in this case, Bolivia) against the needs of all people in the whole wide world. The option faced by the Indigenous peoples of Bolivia was and is between collective assertion of control over a crop they nourished throughout history, and a handful of global corporations that will “add value” to existing seed stocks (tolerance to that company’s pesticides, for example) and then patent seeds and even the name of quinoa.
    I believe food sovereignty will prove more supportive of the food needs of the future than corporate ownership.

  • Alonso Sarmiento Llamosas

    Dear Sir.
    Please don’t forget to say that QUINUA in from PERU.
    Sincerely Yours.
    Alonso Sarmiento
    Attorney at Law
    Lima, Peru

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