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I ate quinoa-and-turkey chili in a cafeteria today, which, when you think about it, is pretty amazing. Rarely does an entire culture, almost overnight, adopt an entirely new food.
Just 15 years ago, quinoa was practically unknown outside of the Andean region of South America. When European explorers first arrived in the Americas, they liked some of the food they found here (potatoes, corn) but they had no use for quinoa. For a while, they even tried to get people here to stop growing it. So while corn and potatoes spread around the globe, quinoa stayed home. Only the people of present-day Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Ecuador persisted in growing this multicolored relative of spinach and tumbleweed, with its big lumpy head of seeds.
How times change.
Quinoa is now seen as cool, exotic and supernutritious. It's turned into a profitable export crop for those Andean farmers. And it's ready to take another leap — into global production.
Farmers around the world are hoping to climb onto this quinoa bandwagon by growing quinoa themselves, with tractors and combines and large-scale processing plants. And some Andean farmers are asking, "What happens to us?"
Both sides gathered this week at Washington State University, in Pullman, Wash., for a kind of global quinoa summit. The group included agricultural researchers who are experimenting with quinoa in Denmark, France, Pakistan, Malawi, Colorado, and the Pacific Northwest of the United States.
Some had stories of success; others, tales of failure. "It was not immediately successful anywhere that it's been grown," says Kevin Murphy, a plant breeder at Washington State University, who organized the conference. Many varieties of quinoa only seem happy in the cool, dry, highlands of the Andes. If it's too hot, many won't produce a harvest. Too much rain is bad, too.
"We're spending a lot of time testing different varieties that have come out of the Andean countries to see if any of them will, one, survive here, and two, produce a seed that we'd like to eat," says Jeff Maughan, a scientist at Brigham Young University. Maughan is studying the genetics of quinoa.
Researchers also are figuring out how to mass-produce this crop, and harvest it with machines.
Murphy says those practical problems can be solved. He's more worried about something else: fairness.
In four or five years, he says, quinoa won't only be grown in the Andes anymore. But what about the people of the Andes, such as the farmers whose ancestors kept quinoa alive through the centuries, who selected all these different varieties? What will happen to them?
"For me, that's the most pressing question, the most urgent question," Murphy says.
Murphy invited some Bolivian farmers to this quinoa summit, and five of them came. They'd never been outside Bolivia before.
Pablo Laguna was also there. He's an anthropologist, half-Bolivian and half-French, who's been working among traditional quinoa farmers. He has become a bridge between them and the outside world.
Laguna says that when these farmers see the rest of the world trying to grow their crop, they have a couple of reactions. "On the one hand, they're proud of being descendants of people who selected those plants," he says.
They're also pragmatic, Laguna says. They know they can't stop the growing international appetite for quinoa. They don't even want to; it's been profitable for them. (Some news reports have suggested that poor Bolivians have been hurt by foreign demand for quinoa, but Laguna and others say that's almost completely untrue.)
But the Bolivian farmers also feel that if they provide this plant for competitors to grow in places like the United States or Australia, they should see some benefits.
That's why, at the moment, the government of Bolivia is trying to keep control over many quinoa varieties. It won't give samples, for instance, to plant breeders in the U.S. like Murphy.
"For some of the researchers, that was a bit of a bitter pill to swallow, because they believe in free access to seeds, and to crops," says Murphy.
But Murphy doesn't have a problem with that. Bolivia is making an important point, he says.
"Nobody is doubting that quinoa production is going to go global, so we want to do it right," he says. "And doing it right means doing it with the input of the Bolivian farmers right from the beginning. You know, realizing that this is their seed, this is their sacred plant, and we need to respect that, and we need to figure out a way to compensate them for that."
At the conference, there was talk of creating a special brand for Andean quinoa, a little like the special recognition granted to other traditional foods, like Bordeaux wine.
This brand would be top-quality quinoa, and consumers might also be willing to pay extra for it, just because it would be quinoa from the land and the communities that safeguarded it for thousands of years.