Quinoa’s global success creates quandary at home

Quinoa is hailed as a ‘superfood’ in the West. But those who grow it can no longer afford it. WHEN NASA scientists were searching decades ago for an ideal food for long-term human space missions, they came across an Andean plant called quinoa. With an exceptional balance of amino acids, quinoa, they declared, is virtually unrivaled in the plant or animal kingdom for its life-sustaining nutrients.

But while Bolivians have lived off it for centuries, quinoa remained little more than a curiosity outside the Andes for years, found in health food shops and studied by researchers — until recently.

Now demand for quinoa (pronounced KEE-no-ah) is soaring in rich countries, as American and European consumers discover the “lost crop” of the Incas.

Today it is the nutritional qualities of the seed which have generated a new export market for South American farmers.

Quinoa contains more protein than any other “grain” and includes all eight essential amino acids needed for tissue development. Supermarkets, on the lookout for the latest “superfood”, are marketing the gluten-free seeds as a healthier alternative to rice and pasta. Tesco sells 300g packs, labelled “essential for the body’s growth and repair”, for £1.69.

Cooked like rice, quinoa is served with “pilaf” broths and casseroles, incorporated into salads tossed with herbed vinaigrette, or eaten as a porridge-style breakfast with nuts, fruit and honey.

The surge has helped raise farmers’ incomes here in one of the hemisphere’s poorest countries. But there has been a notable trade-off: Fewer Bolivians can now afford it, hastening their embrace of cheaper, processed foods and raising fears of malnutrition in a country that has long struggled with it.

The shift offers a glimpse into the consequences of rising global food prices and changing eating habits in both prosperous and developing nations. While quinoa prices have almost tripled over the past five years, Bolivia’s consumption of the staple fell 34 percent over the same period, according to the country’s agricultural ministry.

The resulting quandary — local farmers earn more, but fewer Bolivians reap quinoa’s nutritional rewards — has nutritionists and public officials grasping for solutions.

“As it’s exported, quinoa is now very expensive,” said María Julia Cabrerizo, a nutritionist at the Hospital de Clínicas, a public hospital here. “It’s not a food of mass consumption, like noodles or rice.”

Quinoa, domesticated thousands of years ago on Bolivia’s arid high mountain plains and now often misrepresented as a grain, is actually a chenopod, related to species like beets and spinach. Its seeds have a light, nutty taste, and when cooked become almost translucent.

While the Incas relied on quinoa to feed their soldiers, it was only recently that Bolivian farmers, with the help of European and American foreign aid organizations, started growing quinoa for export…..

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