food / travel

Quinoa: How Bolivia's 'Mother Of All Grains' Became Hottest Organic Craze

Bolivian farmer in her quinoa field
Bolivian farmer in her quinoa field
Chrystelle Barbier

CHALLAPATA – Standing beneath the Bolivian sun, it takes just one long look at the quinoa fields stretching as far as the eye can see, to understand why the Andean people call quinoa the golden grain.

“We also call it chisiya mama, which means ‘mother of all grains’ in the Aymara language,” smiles Valentina Rodriguez, a farmer from the Cotimbora community, in southern Bolivia.

Known for centuries for resisting difficult climate conditions, quinoa has always been grown in this region, near the Uyuni Salt Flatsin, in a stretch of highlands situated more than 3,700 meters above sea-level.

“My grandparents grew it,” remembers Valentina. For a long time, the golden grain was only found in the Andes. Today it can be found in organic meals around the world. Rich in protein, amino acids, mineral nutrients, vitamins and gluten free, this “pseudo cereal,” as it is called because it bears resemblance to grass, is actually part of the same family as spinach, chenopodium.

Quinoa in the Bolivian Altiplano - Photo: swifant

Popular in the U.S., Northern Europe and Australia, quinoa and its nutritious benefits go far beyond a simple organic trend. The U.N. recently launched the International Year of the Quinoa, saying the plant could help boost food security globally as well as fight malnutrition. This is one more reason why the so-called “super grain” has become so popular since the end of the 1980s – a trend that is benefitting Bolivia, its number one exporter.

Bolivia exported more than 26,000 tons of quinoa in 2012, providing 46% of quinoa consumed in the world. “Around 52% of the production goes to the U.S., 12.5% to France,” says Lucio Tito, director of the Bolivian Institute for Agriculture and Forest Innovation (INIAF), who is expecting record revenues of about 80 million dollars in 2013.

These record numbers are linked to soaring quinoa prices. In January, the royal quinoa reached $3,200 per ton on the international market, tripling in price in six years. “Our ancestors would not believe their eyes,” says Ciprian Mayorga, a producer from Salinas de Garci Mendoza, near Uyuni, who recalls the 1970s when 50 kilograms of quinoa would sell for 40 pesos -- against more than 800 pesos today. “Since 2005, quinoa revenues have allowed us to build a small house in the town and send our children to school. This was impossible before,” says the 67-year-old farmer, who adds, “The rise in price has changed everything in the countryside.”

Everyone wants a slice of quinoa pie

Thousands of Bolivians have returned to their hometowns in the country to participate in the quinoa boom. Around Challapata, there is quinoa everywhere. “Before, the land was reserved for livestock, but today, it's all quinoa,” says Antonia Choqueticlla, a seamstress who has been growing quinoa plants since she was six years old. “Before, it wasn’t worth producing but now the whole family has started growing it,” says Juvenal Romero, an inhabitant of Challapata who up until 2008 worked in a foundry, four hours away. “In six years, quinoa fields have doubled in Bolivia, exceeding 104,000 hectares in 2012,” says Lucio Tito.

Quinoa farmer in Cachilaya, Bolivia - Photo: Michael Hermann

The intensification of crops, with the use of tractors, has worried researchers and authorities: “Farmers went from small, hand-planted plots on hillsides, to fully mechanized crops in the plains,” explains Thierry Winkel, an agro-ecologist from the French Institute of Research and Development (IRD), who led a study on the emergence of quinoa in the global economy. After four years of study, the IRD did not find any traces of soil depletion due to quinoa. “Yields are low, but this is mainly due to the climate and bad seeds,” says Winkel.

The National Association of Quinoa Producers (Anapqui) gives recommendations to its 2,000 members. For instance it advises producers to regularly rotate their land and to have a minimum of cattle per cultivated hectare. According to farmers, soil on the highlands that receive good manure can produce up to 30 quintals (3,000 kg) per hectare, against 10 (1,000 kg) otherwise.

“We remain vigilant in order to prevent the quinoa production from affecting our soils and our environment,” says Lucio Tito. According to him, Bolivia will limit the use of chemical products and excessive use of tractors in large properties. The INIAF is also aware that quinoa crops will continue to grow at the expense of other crops, which is something to keep an eye on. “In addition to the price increase, quinoa has the particularity of resisting climate change, a problem that is currently affecting potato crops,” explains Tito, who adds that quinoa can endure temperatures from -4 °C to 38 °C.

Quinoa is “highly adaptable” to different terrains, says the U.N. It is cultivated today in the U.S., Canada, England, The Netherlands, and since 2006, in the Loire Valley in France, far away from the Andean highlands.

Does this competition worry Bolivian producers? “All these varieties will never be able to rival our royal quinoa, that only grows around the Uyuni Salt Flats,” says the president of the Anapqui association.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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