Following on from the International Year of Co-operatives, the United Nations has named 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa — and co-operatives are still playing a big part.
A gluten-free, and organic whole grain, quinoa has become more and more popular among Western states, mainly due to its nutritive value.
Sergio Nuñez, founder of Andean Naturals, the largest quinoa importer in the US, said that through the UN’s endorsement quinoa “finally gets the recognition it deserves”. “It is a great year to celebrate that quinoa is currently 95 percent owned by small family farms,” he said.
Mr Nuñez explained that in Bolivia most co-ops and producer associations closely resemble each other. The majority of quinoa producers are grouped into producer associations or co-operatives.
Since the 1952 reforms that followed the Bolivian National Revolution, associations and ethnic groups have been given land ownership. “There is no private ownership in areas where we work,” said Sergio Nunez. He explained how the groups are the ones that own the land, and many of them are Fairtrade certified.
Mr Jhon Garcia, General Manager of APQUISA (Asociación de Productores de Quinua Salinas), a Fairtrade association of 181 members, said it is impossible for small Bolivian producers to gain access to the global market unless they associate.
The increase in demand in Western states for quinoa has also led to an increase in quinoa production. “We have to associate to attend this type of demand,” said Mr Garcia.
On the other hand, the grain-like crop has had a pejorative connotation for the middle and upper Bolivian class, which used to see it as poor people food.
In recent years consumption has decreased among farmers and small producers themselves, as they can now afford to eat other grains.
“In Bolivia, where I was born, middle and upper class don’t eat it; now it’s much more popular because of all its information about nutrition,” said Mr Nuñez.
Quinoa remains the main food source for people across ten areas of Bolivia, but consumption has decreased in recent years. According to Carla Veldhuyzen, Regional Co-ordinator for the Andean Region for Fairtrade International, quinoa consumption per capita has been reduced to ten percent of the population.
There are various issues that could account for the decrease in the internal consumption. A key element is the increase in the price of quinoa; it has tripled from $863 per tonne in 1999 to $3,000 in 2012.
The increase in the price has led to a phenomenon of reverse migration, with people who had left rural areas years ago in search of jobs and opportunities, coming back to their local communities to grow quinoa.
A 2008 study conducted by AUTAPO Foundation revealed that 56 percent of those living in the southern highlights of Bolivia were emigrants or temporal residents. The same study also showed that 94 percent of the overall quinoa production in the Southern Highlands of Bolivia is sold, while only five per cent is consumed by farmers and the remaining one percent is used for seeds.
Sergio Nuñez said that from the producers’ point of view the increase in the price of quinoa is beneficial for Bolivians because it allows them to secure a better life. They can now afford to take their children to school and they have more choice. He explained that in the past “people could not afford much else than quinoa”.
The increase in the price also has some negative aspects. There have been concerns that due to the growing demand in Europe and across the US, poor people in some Bolivian communities can no longer afford to buy it.
“Bolivia is still poor and if you have no source of income, you cannot afford any source of food,” said Sergio Nuñez.
He added: “We don’t want people to think that farmers don’t have quinoa to eat or that they are becoming poorer. They are eating a little less quinoa but they earn enough so that they can supplement it. If they have the money they will want to eat rice or pasta.
“They now make $220. They used to make 35 dollars a month. They can now keep their kids in school. It is not very expensive but finally recognised at its true value. That’s the difference between it’s too expensive and really worth it.”
Some fluctuations in quinoa price are also determined by severe weather conditions which leads to a poor harvest. Thus the price has to go up.
Jhon Garcia said the aim is to increase production to respond to the increase in the demand. However, cultivating more quinoa can also lead to the degradation of soils. Moreover, the increase in production has also led to social conflicts, with people fighting over land.
Mr Nunez said farmers associations and co-ops are currently trying to address all these issues by working with the Bolivian government.
In March 2011, the house of deputies passed the law 680 that established quinoa as a national priority. Through this law the Government aimed to use production and distribution of quinoa as a means to promote and further develop the Bolivian agricultural sector.
President of Bolivia, Evo Morales Ayma, has been named as Special Ambassador for the International Year of Quinoa. Another special ambassador is also the First Lady of Peru, Nadine Heredia.
Producers across Bolivia rely on quinoa to earn their living. The grain-like crop grows in areas where nothing else can be cultivated. Mr Nuñez said that quinoa could be cultivated in other areas across various poor countries, which face the same conditions.
“Quinoa could help to eradicate poverty and improve food security,” said Carla Veldhuyzen. Quinoa is a drought tolerant corp and can be grown in a wide range of soils.
However, Sergio Nuñez explained that should quinoa be commercially cultivated in European countries or across the US, this could reduce the price and have a severe impact on farmers across Bolivia, Peru or Ecuador, highly dependent upon the crop.