Interest in quinoa has surged among consumers in Europe and the United States – but the rapid increase in its popularity has also given rise to concerns about sustainable production.
Quinoa has attracted health conscious consumers around the world for its nutritional punch, as it is packed with minerals, folate, protein and healthy fats.The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) repeatedly has touted quinoa as a potentially important crop for food security too, as it grows well in harsh and dry climatic conditions.
However, with farm gate prices rocketing on the surge in demand, many people in its native Andean nations are scrambling for a slice of the market – often without regard to the environment, according to Fairtrade International.
Carla Veldhuyzen, regional manager of the Andes Region for Fairtrade International, said: “People who never were in the quinoa business are suddenly coming to the region and wanting to grow quinoa without really using the traditional practices. The traditional growers have been living from quinoa all their lives and they know that the land needs it.”
Although the crop is hardy, it only grows well if the soil is properly prepared, using organic fertilizers and rotating quinoa with other crops. Fairtrade-certified production is on the increase, and there are now six certified cooperatives and associations, four in Bolivia and one each in Peru and Ecuador. They must set aside at least a third of the Fairtrade premium they receive for environmental measures, including training for sustainable cultivation as the crop is scaled up.
The cooperatives also have programmes in place to ensure that quinoa remains a part of the local diet, which has repeatedly been flagged as a potential area of concern. The fear is that as the price of quinoa has increased – it has tripled since 2006 – locals may switch to less nutritious, imported alternatives.
However, Veldhuyzen says that this is not a big worry for Fairtrade groups.
“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. …To prepare a plate of quinoa is a lot of work. They aren't worried about it and most say they continue to consume it sufficiently.”
One Bolivian cooperative is also selling hundreds of tonnes of quinoa to government food programmes, while quinoa has also been included in Peruvian school breakfasts.
Veldhuyzen claims that the conversation about food security has benefited locals too.
“I think it has helped actually, all this commotion, to have people reflect on what they’re doing. It puts an emphasis on developing strategies to produce in a more sustainable way,” she said.
It is a conversation that continues in Ecuador this week, as researchers and developers have gathered for the fourth World Congress of Quinoa , to discuss how to ensure quinoa’s growth is sustainable.