Quinoa: The Mother Grain

harvesting quinoa

The quinoa boom has greatly benefited Altiplano farmers and their families. (Photo credit: David Mercado/Reuters/Corbis)

In recent years, quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) has gained wide popularity around the world.

The United Nations declared 2013 the “International Year of Quinoa” due to its highly nutritious qualities and ability to be grown in rather harsh conditions. However, as quinoa’s popularity has widened, ethical questions have arisen about the impact the increased harvest has both on the farmers who grow it and the environment in which it is grown.

Though commonly referred to as a grain, quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa, or “goosefoot”) is actually a “pseudo-cereal.”Though it is cooked and eaten like a grain, and has a similar nutrient profile, it is actually a seed; its closest relatives being Swiss chard, spinach, and beets. Unlike grains, however, quinoa is extremely nutritious. It is one of the only plant-derived foods that is a complete protein, meaning it supplies all the essential amino acids. Because it is a seed, quinoa has a high protein to carbohydrate ratio; a single serving contains as much as 8 grams of protein and 5 grams of fiber.

There are 120 varieties of quinoa, with colors including red, yellow, black, white, purple, and green. The harvestable seed grows on a magenta-colored stalk that ranges in height from 3 to 9 feet. The red, white, and black varieties are the ones you are most likely to find in a supermarket. Though most typically consumed in its whole form, quinoa flour and quinoa flakes are also becoming more widely available as a gluten-free alternative to whole wheat.

The Altiplano, is a region in South America that sits 12,000 feet above sea level. Although characterized by a harsh, dry climate unsuitable for many living things, quinoa thrives there. Quinoa is drought-resistant and grows well in poor soils. In addition, quinoa’s ideal growing conditions consist of shorter daylengths and cool temperatures. Quinoa is a prolific crop – 1/2-pound of seed will plant a full acre, and each acre can yield between 1200-2000 pounds of new seeds.

The indigenous people of the Andean Mountains call quinoa “chisaya mama,” or “the mother grain.” There is evidence that quinoa has been cultivated in the Lake Titicaca region for over 5000 years. In addition to its role in nourishment, quinoa also has played an important role in religious ceremonies and burial rituals. Because of the crop’s cultural significance, in 1532, Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro destroyed quinoa fields as a way to take control of the region. The conquistadors forbade Incans from cultivating the plant under threat of death. Instead, they were forced to grow European crops such as wheat and barley. However, some quinoa continued to grow in inaccessible regions, and the unique crop was “re-discovered” in the 1970s.

quinoa growing

Quinoa thrives in the harsh conditions of the Altiplano. (Photo credit: Corbis)

As quinoa gained popularity in recent years, questions began to arise about how an increased harvest was affecting the farmers who grew it and the environment in which it was grown. According to a report written by Emma Banks of the Andean Information Network, the relationship between food security and economic development in Bolivia is complicated. Reports in news outlets such as NPR and The New York Times explained that, due to the high prices quinoa was fetching for export, native Bolivians could no longer afford to eat the superfood staple themselves. However, the truth is a little more complex. In Bolivia, until its recent global popularity boom, only farmers ate quinoa. Most Bolivians living in cities did not eat quinoa, instead preferring to eat other grains, which were viewed as being more refined ingredients. Only recently has quinoa made its way onto the menus of big city restaurants. Quinoa farmers still do eat quinoa and reserve a portion of the harvest for their own needs.

According to Banks, quinoa fetches a guaranteed high price for farmers, providing them with economic stability. While the Altiplano is a region that has been historically underserved and poor, the quinoa boom has greatly benefited the farmers and their families who live there. One way to ensure that quinoa farmers receive fair wages for their crops is to purchase fair-trade products. The principles of fair-trade practices include safe working conditions, fair prices for crops, community development, and environmental stewardship.

Environmental stewardship is an important hallmark of fair-trade practices as an increased demand for quinoa has led to changes in the ways the crop is grown and harvested. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), between 1992 and 2010, the cultivated area of quinoa in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador doubled and the total production of quinoa in the region tripled. As production has ramped up, agricultural methods have changed. Instead of letting the land rest between plantings, quinoa is now grown year-round. Non-stop cultivation depletes nutrients from an already-nutrient-poor soil, increasing the chances of desertification. Traditionally, quinoa farmers set aside part of their land for llamas, which would in turn provide nutrients back into the soil through their manure. Many farmers have gotten rid of their llamas in order to have more land to dedicate to growing quinoa. Alter Eco, a purveyor of fair-trade quinoa, and its partners require their farmers to own at least seven llamas per cultivated hectare of quinoa to provide manure to fertilize the soil. Climate change threatens to add more problems to the mix as increased regional temperatures mean that more insects are able to survive at the Altiplano’s 12,000-foot elevation. Farmers are beginning to see the need to use insecticides to protect their crops from pests.

The cultivation of quinoa is no longer limited to the Andean region. More than 70 countries currently grow quinoa, including France, Sweden, India, Kenya, and the United States. Thus far, the majority of quinoa production in the United States is small-scale. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), in 2012 the department’s Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded Washington State University with a $1.6 million grant to “help develop adapted varieties and optimal management practices for quinoa production in diverse environmental conditions.”

There is no doubt that the production and consumption of quinoa is a complex issue. On one hand, quinoa is a highly nutritious food source, a “superfood,” that holds great promise for helping to solve world hunger problems. On the other hand, increasing production of quinoa so it’s widely available has the potential to introduce unsustainable farming practices that can harm both the land and the people who work it. The answers for how to confront these issues are not simple and will take time. Hopefully, ways can be found to ensure there is enough of the crop for everyone who wants it, as large a profit for the farmers who cultivate it, and as little impact to the land that provides it so the land can continue to provide quinoa for years to come.

More to Explore

Fair Trade USA
Who Owns Quinoa?
It’s OK to Eat Quinoa
Quinoa: “Grain” of the Month
Bolivian Quinoa Questions: Production and Food Security
Quinoa’s Global Success Creates Quandary at Home
Quinoa: good, evil, or just really complicated?
Quinoa: A Plant with a Lot of Potential
FAO’s Role in Quinoa
50 Ways to Love Your Quinoa



  1. Quinoa is the greatest! I eat it with yogurt every morning, on those days I don’t have a muffin. Everyone should try it.

What Do You Think?