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Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: Quinoa’s rise to superfood superstar status and the challenges it must address

By Elizabeth Crawford

Last updated on 24-Jun-2016 at 14:19 GMT2016-06-24T14:19:21Z

Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: Quinoa’s rise & the challenges it must address
Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: Quinoa’s rise & the challenges it must address
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Quinoa was one of the first superfoods to take America by storm more than a decade ago, and one of the few such stars to sustain its reign long enough to push past being a fad food to become a staple on restaurant menus and households across the country, but the popular grain faces challenges as it become commoditized. 

Threats from commoditization include potential negative environmental impacts of increase production, reduced biodiversity and quality and increased competition from large-scale producers that could cut out the little guys.

The co-founders of Alter Eco, which sells Royal Quinoa from Bolivia that is Fair Trade and organic, are proactively addressing these threats by working with small scale farmers who preserve traditional farming practices and a wide variety of quinoa seeds. And they are helping to pave the way for a brighter future for quinoa and the farmers who produce it.

In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts Podcast, Edouard Rollet, the co-founder and co-CEO of Alter Eco, discusses how quinoa earned its superfood superstar status and the challenges and opportunities that are influencing the protein-packed grain’s future.

Identifying quinoa’s potential

Rollet explained that Alter Eco was drawn to quinoa for its health benefits, versatility, market-potential and ability to create a stable income source for indigenous communities who otherwise had very little money or resources.

“When we started selling quinoa in 2004, you had only one brand on the shelf in the US more or less and … we were doing in-store demos so that people could become acquainted with the product [because] nobody knew what it was and how to pronounce it,” he said.

But, he explained, the company saw significant potential for quinoa because it is a complete protein, high in vitamins and fiber and low in fat. In addition, he said, the grain’s versatility boded well for sales because it could appeal to vegans, but also easily be mixed with fish or meat as a side dish, used in salads and as a base for burgers.

The co-founders’ foresight paid off. By 2014, imports of the grain in the US had grown to 68.9 million pounds and dollar sales of the grain grew 35% in the same year, according to Statista data.

The co-founders of Alter Eco also saw the rising market demand for quinoa as an opportunity to help “the poorest of the poorest” who produce the grain in Bolivia to “thrive and … really push their way out of poverty” by paying them Fair Trade prices, the premium from which was reinvested in the farms and communities, Rollet said.

The media’s mixed impact and clarifying misinformation

Another driver of quinoa sales in the US, was extensive media coverage which exposed more consumers to the grain and its benefits, Rollet noted.

But the coverage cut both ways when a story that went viral inaccurately claimed the demand for quinoa had driven up prices in the regions where it was produced to the point that the farmers who needed it to survive could no longer afford it. American consumers responded by boycotting the grain with hopes that if they didn’t eat it, there would be enough for the farmers who really needed it.

“What triggered that story that is true is that in the cities the price of quinoa increase quite a bit … but no one ate quinoa in the cities in the first place,” Rollet said.

He added that the farmers still had plenty of quinoa to eat, thanks in part to Alter Eco helping to ensure that each farmer family keeps an average of 600 to 800 pounds of quinoa annually for their own consumption.

In addition, he noted that the higher price of quinoa allowed many farmers who previously could only afford potatoes and quinoa, to buy fresh produce and vegetables that they couldn’t afford before.

“So, as far as diet, the sale of quinoa had an incredible impact,” he said.

The rising demand and sale price of quinoa also helped the villagers who produce it to develop basic community infrastructure, such as build restrooms and sanitary systems, Rollet said. It also allowed farmers to afford to send their children to school.

“That is the real story behind the quinoa crazy,” Rollet said.

But it is not the full story.

Real problems threaten quinoa

While the price of quinoa for farmers was not a real problem, the grain still faces many challenges, including price fluctuations that threaten the consistency of the supply chain and the risk that commoditization of quinoa will lead to the development of large scale production that will undercut small scale farmers, Rollet says.

He explained that commoditization is leading to large scale operations by companies that may not have the farmers’ best interest at heart, in the same way as Alter Eco. This difference is most apparent in the fluctuating price that most companies pay to farmers, making it difficult for them to invest in the future.

“People say that farmers have benefited from the price of quinoa because the price went up to $8,000 a ton two years ago, but again, if you step back and look at quinoa in the last 15 years, yeah, you have prices that were really low, then you had a peak and now it is going back down. What is important is what we provide to this supply chain as … the leader in Fair Trade quinoa,” which is stability and consistency in price, Rollet said.

He explained that Alter Eco has consistently paid farmers enough money to cover their production – even when the price was low – so that the farmers had a consistent income with which they could invest in their future.

This includes protecting the biodiversity of quinoa by encouraging farmers to plant a wide variety of the more than 3,000 types of quinoa, even though commoditization of quinoa and the global export demand for the grain is limited to only a few varieties since the 2000s.

Another way that Alter Eco protects the biodiversity of quinoa is by supporting farmers who have created “quinoa museums to keep all different kinds of quinoa that they cultivate,” Rollet said. “I think this is great because people tend to go to the ones that are the most resistant … but making sure we have biodiversity for growing strong crops in those regions is also super important.”

This not only helps protect against the risk of a monoculture, but it also ensures Alter Eco a high quality grain compared to some of the more commoditized varieties, Rollet said.

“In the case of quinoa from Peru [where there is more large scale production and commoditization] and quinoa from Bolivia [where production comes from more small scale farms], there are several distinctions,” Rollet said. “The grain is bigger, the flavor profile is different, so we started offering consumers quinoa Royal, which is the champagne of quinoa, we call it, because it is a higher quality grain.”

Rollet says another threat to quinoa related to grain’s fast popularity, is the risk that farmers will sacrifice the health of their land in order to meet rising demand and make money.

“This is a very fragile environment. Again, it is really high up, lots of wind, almost no water. We have to make sure the environment is preserved not just for the environment, but to make sure that in 10, 20, 50 years their children” can still farm quinoa because it is the only real resource for these communities, Rollet explained. He added: “If during this boom they are going to damage their only resource, then we have a problem.”

Alter Eco helps ensure that the land is protected by requiring farmers to follow organic practices, including rotating the fields so some are fallow. It also ensures that one-third of the Fair Trade premium the company pays goes to preventing soil erosion, and that farmers have sufficient llamas to fertilize the fields.

The future of quinoa

Looking forward, Rollet says he is confident that consumers will continue to demand high quality quinoa, and that Alter Eco will not let them down by doing everything in its power to balance the needs of the earth, farmers and shoppers.

He also predicts the grain’s price will continue to drop, which makes it vital that farmers who grow the Royal Quinoa that Alter Eco sells are recognized for their efforts and their product’s high quality. To that end, Alter Eco is working to have the name Royal Quinoa protected so that only quinoa grown in a specific region of Bolivia can use the term.

All of these factors are a lot for Alter Eco to track, but Rollet said a holistic approach is necessary because balancing long term partnerships, environmental stewardship and biodiversity is the only way to have a coherent approach to sustainable development. 

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