The United Arab Emirates could soon be competing with Andean countries like Peru and Bolivia in the production of quinoa. Researchers from the UAE’s environment ministry are working with local farmers in an effort to kick-start commercial production, which the government hopes will be a sustainable operation by 2021.
Despite hailing from the high plains of the Andes, Quinoa is attracting interest from growers all over the world—Canada, China, Denmark, Italy, India, Kenya, Morocco and the Netherlands are producing it or have undertaken trials with a view to producing it commercially. But tests in the UAE have been particularly promising, indicating a potential yield of 5 tonnes per hectare, compared to much lower yields in Peru (1.3 t/ha) and Bolivia (0.65 t/ha).
Quinoa is now more popular than ever among health-conscious consumers in the developed world. In 1993, NASA boffins raved about a “new crop” which could keep its astronauts healthy out in space. But in the last decade demand has increased by 18 times, more than any other food, according to the World Bank. Per calorie, it has more nutrients than any other crop, prompting the UN to declare 2013 “International Quinoa Year,” touting it as a new weapon in the fight against malnutrition.
Explosive demand has led to increased competition, particularly in South America. Peru has ramped up production in recent years, overtaking Bolivia as the world’s largest producer in 2013. This year it is set to also become the world’s largest exporter, shipping 40,000 metric tonnes with a value of $180 million.
The rivalry between the two countries has become increasingly acrimonious. In November the Bolivian police appeared on TV, setting fire to 23 tonnes of quinoa which had been seized at a checkpoint near the Peruvian border. A week later local farmers marched on the presidential palace, accusing Peru of infiltrating its cheaper, factory-farmed quinoa into their local markets. They claim outsiders are deliberately mixing it with Bolivia’s superior, organically cultivated grain in an attempt to force them to lower their prices.
Expanding quinoa production internationally might be good news for consumers in South America who have recently been forced to cut back on the staple due to its high cost. But it could hurt Andean farmers used to commanding high prices for their harvest. Instead, Bolivia is set to focus on quality. The country is the only producer of quinoa real (royal quinoa), reputed to be the finest in the world. “It’s an advantage that we plan to use,” says Juan Pablo Seleme, president of the Bolivian Chamber of Quinoa Exporters. “You can’t find it anywhere else in the world. We want people to understand that our quinoa has value.”
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