Letter from Bolivia — From the May 2014 issue

The Quinoa Quarrel

Who owns the world’s greatest superfood?

Download Pdf
Read Online

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.

Previous PageNext Page
1 of 10

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $45.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
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.

More from Lisa M. Hamilton:

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada


October 2018


Sign up to receive The Weekly Review, Harper’s Magazine’s singular take on the past seven days of madness. It’s free!*

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.