19 April 2013
Today, 95% of the world's quinoa is grown in small family farm communities at over 12,500 feet on the Altiplano, a vast plateau in the Andes Mountains. Eden Foods began visiting, developing relationships, and purchasing organic quinoa there in 1985.
A few years ago we focused our purchases from two separate indigenous Indian communities in Bolivia. In 2012, 100% of Eden's quinoa was purchased from these two communities. This focus was designed to ensure Fairly Traded quinoa with a face, a story, a relationship, and positive social impacts to build upon over the long-run.
Quinoa has not been a staple grain of Bolivia since colonial times. Until very recently the majority of Bolivians considered quinoa a 'peasant food.' It was only grown and consumed by poor farmers living on the Altiplano. This harsh, arid, cold, and windswept environment is primarily suited to growing quinoa and potatoes. There are very few suitable crop options.
For several decades farmers were unable to support their families and many were forced into cities seeking livable wages. This trend has reversed itself, with families returning to their ancestral villages from the cities. The new trend is a result of quinoa's nutritional value and international popularity. Indigenous farm incomes have risen by more than 570% since 2007.
A short-term, make as much money as quickly as possible approach to quinoa agriculture in some Andean communities has left the soil depleted of nutrients and structure. With quinoa prices rising steadily over the last 10 years, abandonment of crop rotations and prudent soil management practices became common. Monocropping replaced good farming practices in the rush to cash-in, and many areas have seen quinoa yields decline steeply as soil fertility plummeted.
Eden Foods' quinoa suppliers are all members of a Fair Trade network that requires an ongoing investment in sustainability programs. Eden long-term strategies, centered upon organic farming practices and common sense soil building and management programs, fit quite well into the Fair Trade programs.
Two important practices within the Fair Trade network are reintroducing llamas into the farming system, and the creation and utilization of compost that they call abono. Quinoa produced using abono results in powerful soil rebuilding. Managing llama grazing on farms results in 50 to 100% increases in quinoa yields. With higher yields the fields can be allowed to go fallow and rest, restoring ecological balance and soil fertility. Organic management practices, encouraged with in the Fair Trade network and having wonderful results, have caused a strong majority of the quinoa crop to become certified organically grown.
Not all quinoa farmers sell their crop to Fair Trade participants, and there are many businesses eager to take advantage of them. Within the Fair Trade network relationships with quinoa farmers are approached with the long-term in mind and they are never left without sufficient quinoa for their family and friends regardless of the price the grain can fetch. They have ready access to what they grow, store it at their homes, and they do not sell their entire crop. Most hold about 10% in reserve as insurance.
Quinoa farm families still consume, on average, two cups of uncooked quinoa (6 cups cooked) per family per day. However, it is laborious two-hour task for families to clean quinoa. Foreign material such as stems, stones, and clumps of soil are removed by hand. It's then carried in a tub to the nearest river or stream and hand rubbed and washed to remove the bitter, protective saponin coating. When clean they carted it back home and cook it for 15 minutes to prepare a meal.
As a part the Fair Trade network, and to encourage indigenous quinoa consumption, farmers can take up to 5% of their crop to the cleaning facility where it is cleaned for free, for personal use, to export standards. The quinoa is returned to them ready to cook.
Increased farm family income from quinoa has provided the opportunity for purchase of nutritionally inferior foods like white rice, white pasta, and processed foods. On the positive side, it provides families with additional healthy choices such as fruits and vegetables, and allows more opportunity for the educations of children. Better income also allows the purchase of community tractors, drilling wells, heat and electricity, and the building of better homes and facilities.
The arrival of fast food is not simply a matter of affordability and convenience. The culture is changing, with children and teens showing preference for seductive processed foods. Food globalization is modifying the culture, buying habits, and the pace of life in the quinoa growing areas. Consumption of fast and processed foods is causing malnutrition, not a lack of quinoa. The governments of Peru and Bolivia are very much aware of this and have begun programs to subsidize quinoa in school lunches, and for pregnant and nursing mothers.
Today, approximately 19% of the quinoa grown in Bolivia remains there. It is consumed mainly by indigenous farm families, some of this supported through those government programs.
Eden Foods and the Fair Trade network are confident that ongoing nutritional education and the government supported programs will result in long-term benefits for the indigenous farming communities, their families, and the ecology of the Altiplano region.
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