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Global interest in this fashionable grain has brought additional income to Andean communities.

The localisation of quinoa production, especially in Peru and Bolivia (together they account for almost 80% of world exports), has given these nations an unexpected strategic value. The high protein component of this pseudocereal makes it attractive to countries where food security is a priority.

Quinoa field in the Andes of Bolivia

▲ Quinoa field in the Bolivian Andes [Michael Hermann-CC].

article / Elisa Teomiro

Quinoa, also known as quinoa (in Latin Chenopodium quinoa), is an ancient grain that is more than 5,000 years old and was originally cultivated by pre-Columbian Andean cultures. After the arrival of the Spaniards in America, it was partly displaced by the cereals brought from the mainland. It does not belong to the grass family but to the family of the chenopodiaceae (spinach, chard or beetroot); therefore it is more correct to consider it as a pseudocereal.

It forms the basis of the diet of the Andean population of South America, especially in the high Andean areas of Bolivia and Peru (between them, these two countries account for approximately 76% of the total volume of quinoa exported in the world, 46% Bolivia and 30% Peru). Nowadays, due to its adaptation to different climates (it survives frost, high temperatures, lack of oxygen in the air, lack of water and high salinity), its production has diversified and more countries are producing it: Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, USA and Canada, in the American continent, as well as Great Britain, Denmark, Finland, France, Sweden, Holland, Spain, Australia and the USSR, outside it.

Quinoa has gone from being a complete unknown to the majority of the non-American population to experiencing a spectacular rise in popularity in a very short period of time. One of the reasons for this was the decision by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to declare 2013 the International Year of Quinoa. The FAO wanted to reward the great effort being made by the Andean peoples to preserve the grain in its natural state, as food for current and future generations. The activities carried out during that year made quinoa and its nutritional properties known to the world.

Price increase

The interest awakened by this grain tripled its price between 2004 and 2013, which curiously generated a discussion about a possible negative impact on the producing populations.article It was claimed that the high demand for this crop in developed countries had turned quinoa into a "luxury product" in producing countries, where it was already costing more than chicken or rice. It was considered that this status could cause malnutrition in the Andean population, as they could not supplement their scarce per diem expenses with quinoa.

A follow-up on this issue subsequently showed that the quinoa boom was actually helping communities at source. A study by the International Trade Centre, a joint agency of the World Trade Organization and the United Nations based in Geneva, conducted over the period 2014-2015, found that quinoa consumption by developed countries improved the livelihoods of small-scale producers, most of them women.

According to agreement , rising prices between 2004-2013 caused both producers and consumers in the producing regions to benefit financially from trade. Thus, there was a 46% increase in their welfare in this period, as measured by the value of goods and services consumed by households. The report also highlighted how, in contrast, the 40% drop in the price of quinoa grain, suffered towards the end of 2015, caused a decline in rural households' welfare (food consumption fell by 10% and wages by 5%). The study reached two clear conclusions: Peru's sustained decline in quinoa consumption since 2005 was probably due more to changing consumer preferences due to globalisation and increased product supply than to changes in quinoa prices; global quinoa consumption in developed countries undoubtedly contributed to the development of resource-poor communities in the highlands.

Production and trade

There are several reasons why this grain has become so attractive to consumers in Europe and the USA - increasingly also in China and Japan -: its protein content is very high, between 14% and 18%, and they are also proteins of high biological value that would allow it to be a substitute for animal protein (it contains the 10 essential amino acids for the human per diem expenses ). This factor, together with its high iron content, makes it an ideal pseudocereal for vegetarians; it does not contain gluten, so it can also be consumed by coeliacs; it has a low glycaemic content, which allows it to be consumed by diabetics; its fibre and unsaturated fatty acid content (mainly linoleic acid) is high, so all those concerned about their health have an option in quinoa. It is also a source source of vitamin E and B2 (riboflavin) and is high in calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium and iron. For all these reasons, the FAO considers that its high nutritional value financial aid helps to eradicate hunger and malnutrition.


Main quinoa producing countries


The ranking of quinoa-producing countries is headed by Bolivia (its 118,913 hectares of cultivation accounted for 60% of the total area of quinoa sown in the world in 2016), followed by Peru (64,223 hectares, representing 30% of the global area sown) and Ecuador (2,214 hectares) [Table 1]. From 1990 to 2014, the area planted with quinoa increased from 47,585 hectares to 195,342 hectares. The overall value of exports increased from USD 135.5 million in 2012 to USD 321.5 million in 2015.

In terms of export volume in tonnes, Bolivia was the leading country in 2012 (more than 25,000 tonnes), which, together with exports in 2013, represented an income for the country of 80 million dollars. In the same year, Peruvian quinoa exports exceeded 10,000 tons, which represented an income for the country of 38 million dollars. In 2014, Peru took over and dominated the market also in 2015 and 2016 [Table 2].

The USA is the world's main importer of quinoa, with 40%, followed by the European Union, with more than 30% of the total (mainly France, Holland, Germany, Great Britain, Italy and Belgium) and then Canada. The average price per kilo of quinoa was 3.2 dollars in 2012 and 6.2 dollars in 2014. In 2015, it fell to 5 dollars. Per capita consumption is logically headed by the two main producers: Bolivia consumes 5.2 kilos and Peru 1.8 kilos, followed at a distance by Ecuador, with 332 grams per person.

In non-producing countries, quinoa was first introduced in the organic sector, with consumers concerned with healthier diets, although today it is no longer exclusive to this market. The largest consumer of quinoa per capita worldwide is Canada, with more than 180 grams, closely followed by the Netherlands; France and Australia consume between 120 and 140 grams. In Spain, consumption is still small, at around 30 grams. Global forecasts up to 2025 are that per capita consumption will reach 200 grams (an achievement that Canada is already within reach) and that even countries that traditionally consume rice, such as Japan and South Korea, will also embrace quinoa.

Quinoa production faces future challenges in terms of both the environment and the market, subject . Before its boom in 2013, almost 60 different varieties of the grain were grown in the Andean highlands and almost all quinoa was organic. Today, rampant trade and large-scale production on large farms has reduced biodiversity to fewer than 20 different types.


Main quinoa exporting countries


Forecasts from market research commissioned by the Trade for Development Center in 2016 on current and future markets for quinoa point to a likely doubling of the global market in ten years, especially with conventional quinoa produced not only in Peru, but also in Australia, the United States and Canada. The production of organic quinoa, produced by small farmers in the highlands, will remain relatively stable. The market skill will continue to be fierce, so farmers in the Altiplano will have to look for measures to maintain a niche market with certified organic quinoa, grown using traditional and fair trade methods.

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