Celebrating Quinoa Cooperatives during the International Year of Quinoa

(by Lorenza Vianello, Altromercato)

Although it has been a traditional foodstuff in the Andes for thousands of years, quinoa has become a favourite of health-conscious consumers in Western countries. In fact, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has designated 2013 the International Year of Quinoa.

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It’s nutritious, tasty, and versatile: quinoa – a grain-like crop grown primarily for its edible seeds – is a steadily-growing Fairtrade product among small-scale producer organizations. Six cooperatives and associations (four in Bolivia and one each in Peru and Ecuador) are currently certified Fairtrade, a fact that was relevant during the International Day of the Cooperative on July 6.

High global demand for quinoa means the future looks bright for this traditional crop of the Andean region of South America.  From 8 to 12 July, scientists, researchers, academics, and developers have gathered in Ecuador for the fourth World Congress of Quinoa to discuss the importance of quinoa on the global stage and how to ensure that its rapid growth is sustainable.

Carla Veldhuyzen, Regional Manager of the Andes Region for Fairtrade International, reports that the global spotlight on quinoa is welcome news to the farmers. She recently visited small producer organizations in Bolivia, including the oldest Fairtrade Certified quinoa small producer organization, ANAPQUI, which gained certification in 2001.

Risks of a quinoa boom

As the Andes’ “golden grain” has found its way onto more and more supermarket shelves in consuming countries, it has gone from a niche health-food product to a mainstream dietary staple. The sharp increase in demand has driven prices up, which has also raised food security concerns.

The issue is that quinoa may become so expensive that the crop’s traditional consumers in the Andes won’t be able to afford it and will turn to less-healthy imported alternatives. Another worry is that quinoa farmers won’t keep as much quinoa for their own family consumption, opting to sell as much as possible.

Veldhuyzen says that these concerns – which are discussed much more seriously outside of quinoa-growing regions – are legitimate, but that the Fairtrade groups don’t see them as particularly serious issues.

“They say they are consuming less quinoa, but that’s not just because they cannot afford it anymore or because they want to sell all of their quinoa and buy cheap food themselves,” she said. “It’s also due to changes in the way of life. [Life moves fast], and just to prepare a plate of quinoa is a lot of work. They don’t have that time all the time. They aren’t worried about it and most say they continue to consume it sufficiently.”

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 Producers’ concerns

The more troubling issue that farmers have highlighted has to do with sustainable methods of production. The high price of quinoa has brought many people to the area trying to quickly capitalize on the booming quinoa business.

“People who never were in the quinoa business [are] just suddenly coming to the region and wanting to grow quinoa [without] really using the traditional practices.” Veldhuyzen said. “The traditional growers have been living from quinoa all their lives and they know that the land needs it.”

A quinoa plant itself is quite hearty, but it can only thrive if the soil has been properly prepared. Crops should be rotated so the soil has at least a year to rest between harvests, and the use of organic fertilizer such as manure is considered essential.

The cooperatives are required to dedicate at least a third of the Fairtrade Premium for environmental measures, which includes encouraging farmers to keep llamas or alpacas for manure production, the planting of living fences (native trees and shrubs) to protect against wind erosion, and training for sustainable methods of mechanized cultivation.

Keeping quinoa local

There are also programs in place to help ensure that quinoa – a source of protein and several minerals – remains part of the local diet. In Bolivia, ANAPQUI sells several hundred tons of quinoa to the government, which is included in food packets given to thousands of pregnant and nursing women each month.

Quinoa has become part of school breakfasts in Peruvian schools, and farmers across the region are taking part in projects that encourage them to grow additional vegetable crops for home consumption rather than devoting every available plot to lucrative quinoa cultivation. Keeping part of the quinoa harvest for family consumption is also encouraged.

Striking a balance between a healthy business and a healthy diet is an important consideration for quinoa farmers and consumers.

“I think it has helped actually, all this commotion [about food security], to have people reflect on what they’re doing. It puts an emphasis on developing strategies to produce in a more sustainable way,” Veldhuyzen said.