Quinoa combines potential, pitfalls
There’s a lot to like about quinoa, especially after you have learned to pronounce it (keen-WAH).
It is high in protein — as much as 33 percent in some varieties — and is gluten-free. If it had a middle name, it would be “Versatile.” It can be used in just about anything, from toothpaste, detergents and pesticides to flour, noodles and beer, according to the United Nations, which is the head cheerleader for the International Year of Quinoa.
Most recently quinoa has gained popularity among the foodies in the U.S. and Europe as a replacement for rice and wheat.
But quinoa can be hard to grow. Though farmers in Bolivia, Peru and other mountainous areas of South America seem to have no problem — they’ve been at it for 4,000 years — farmers elsewhere have run into all kinds of stumbling blocks. Quinoa is sensitive to cold and heat and some varieties do best at high altitudes while others do better at sea level.
Researchers in the U.S. are just learning about quinoa as they test it in various growing conditions and start to develop hybrids that will thrive in the West.
In an effort to learn more about quinoa, Washington State University last week sponsored an international symposium, bringing together experts from around the world. WSU’s researchers were able to compare notes with some of the leaders in the world of quinoa and talk with farmers from around the region about their experience with it.
Our hope is that quinoa will be developed to become an easy-to-grow, protein-rich crop that farmers in many parts of the world can cultivate to make a living for themselves.
What we fear, however, are two possibilities, both of which would hurt farmers.
The first fear we have is that quinoa’s popularity will continue to grow exponentially, and then fade.
In the past six years, the amount of quinoa imported by the U.S. has increased nearly tenfold, from 7 million pounds to an estimated 68 million pounds this year. Some 90 percent of that crop came from Peru and Bolivia, where it has become a major part of the economy. As the demand has grown, the price has nearly doubled, from $4.50 a pound to $8 a pound retail.
Our fear is that quinoa will be passing fad, and consumers in the U.S. and elsewhere will get their fill of it and, just as quickly as they “discovered” quinoa, move on the next big thing, leaving farmers in the Andes and elsewhere to pick up the pieces.
The other fear we have is that all of the research taking place will be successful and farmers in the U.S., Canada, Europe, India, Africa and elsewhere will flood the market and cause the price of quinoa to nosedive below the cost of production. That in turn would cause the Andean farmers to lose the livelihoods they have built from quinoa.
We are rooting for a third outcome: That neither of these fears become reality and that quinoa will become a viable crop that provides a good living for farmers and helps to feed a hungry world population.