The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) repeatedly has touted quinoa as potentially important crop for food security – it grows well in harsh and dry climatic conditions – and it is also a nutrition powerhouse, packed with minerals, and high in folate, protein and healthy fats, thereby attracting the attention of health-conscious consumers around the world. Indeed, the FAO has declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa, and it says that several governments have expressed interest in introducing quinoa locally because of its hardiness.
However, the benefits of quinoa have been recognised only recently on a global level. With 90% of the crop grown in Bolivia and Peru, world exports grew eightfold from 2005 to 2012, according to FAO figures in a new analysis, which includes a special report on quinoa.
"World demand is expected to keep growing vigorously in the coming years, driven primarily by developed countries, where expenditure on healthier and natural foods is on an upward trend," the report said.
Pitfalls vs. benefits
Such a steep increase in demand has brought benefits – including for local farmers – but there are challenges too.
In particular, the FAO questions whether small producers of quinoa will continue to be the main beneficiaries of quinoa production in the years ahead.
“While quinoa is still produced mostly by smallholder farmers in the Andean countries, this might change rapidly in the future, as many commercial farms in the Andean countries and elsewhere are responding to the surge of demand and investing in the crop,” it said, suggesting that some of the 130,000 small-scale South American quinoa growers may be at risk of marginalisation.
The FAO also said that expanding global production may depress prices, meaning that the benefits currently seen by many of the poorest South American quinoa farmers might be reversed in the medium term.
Finally it said that high quinoa prices for producers may be affecting the nutritional status of indigenous populations, particularly those in the Altiplano region who have traditionally relied on quinoa as a staple.
“Because producer prices have increased along with export prices, poor households have been enticed to replace quinoa with less expensive, but nutritionally inferior, food products, such as bread, pasta or rice,” the report said.
In the short term, the FAO predicts that quinoa’s high price will preclude poorer countries from expanded consumption. Currently the world export price of $3,000 a tonne is about five times higher than the price of rice on international markets.
In the longer term, it says that plans to expand quinoa production globally could lead to much more supply and lower prices for producers and consumers alike, which could have big impacts on how and where the crop is grown and consumed.
“However, it remains to be seen whether quinoa will ever become a major and world-wide staple,” it said.