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Atawallpap Mikhunan:
Quinoa, Mother Grain of the Incas
by Jordan Erdos

December/Diciembre 1999

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While no other food can, by itself, furnish all the essential nutrients for living, quinoa comes as close to being complete as many other foods from the vegetable and animal kingdoms. -- Al Durtschi

Since at least 3000 B.C., if not longer, the seed of the plant Chenopodium quinua has been a vital part of the Andean diet, used as a grain in baking, as well as being served in numerous dishes prepared by Aymara, Quechua and other indigenous peoples found throughout the Andean region. Yet, in spite of its nutritious value and hearty growth, in modern society quinoa has never enjoyed the mass appeal of grains such as rice or wheat.

In the last ten years there has been an increasing interest in quinoa as a healthy alternative to protein-rich foods such as beef or cheese. A growing export industry has developed as industrial countries begin to recognize the importance quinoa could play in providing a healthy and sustainable food source for centuries to come.

As word spreads of this "supergrain," an industry has begun to bloom, offering the promise of sustainable economic development for those regions in the Andean highlands in which quinoa may be found. The current value of the quinoa export market from Bolivia is approximately $1 million per year. Quinoa exports may expand even further with increased demand on the world market, particularly due to unsuccessful attempts to grow a desirable crop outside of the Andean highlands.

Perhaps more important than its economic potential is the incorporation or reincorporation of quinoa into the native diet of Andean peoples in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and other areas in which the plant can be grown for subsistence. This once-revered highland plant -- which, along with potatoes and corn formed a triumvirate of crops vital to the Inca empire -- is slowly working its way back onto the dinner tables of native Andean populations after a long period of waning popularity.


Rise and Fall of the Mother Grain

Following a visit to Colombia, the great Latin American geographer Alexander von Humboldt wrote that quinoa was to ancient Andean societies what "wine was to the Greeks, wheat to the Romans, cotton to the Arabs." Although more prevalent in the neighboring countries of Peru and Bolivia, quinoa has played an important role in indigenous societies throughout the Andean region, including as far south as Salta, Argentina.

The origin of quinoa domestication appears to be located in the area around Lake Titicaca. Based upon the work of Vavilov, the center of origin of a cultivated plant can be determined by the region in which is found the greatest diversity of plant types, both cultivated and wild, related to the plant in question. High variation in cultivated quinoa is found near Lake Titicaca, between Cuzco, Perú and Lake Poopó in Bolivia, thus this is where scientists believe the crop was first domesticated, long before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.

The first Spaniard to mention quinoa cultivation in the New World was Pedro de Valdivia, who informed Emperor Carlos I in 1551 of crops located on the around Concepción, Chile. A sixteenth-century khipu shows the importance placed on quinoa production in the central sierra of Perú; quinoa preceded potatoes in the inventory.

Archaeological evidence relating to the consumption of quinoa in ancient Andean societies has been found in a prehistoric tomb in Arica, Chile and among the contents of a mummy's possessions in Ancón, Perú. According to findings in northern Chile, archaeologists believe quinoa was in use prior to 3000 B.C. Further evidence from the Ayacucho area places the domestication of quinoa before 5000 B.C.

There is little doubt that quinoa played a fundamental role in the great Inca civilization. It is believed that the Incas considered quinoa to be a sacred plant: Religious festivals included an offering of quinoa in a fountain of gold to the sun god, Inti; a special gold implement was used to make the first furrow of each year's planting; and, in Cuzco, ancient Incans worshipped entombed quinoa seeds as the progenitors of the city.

Historians have attributed the success of the Incan empire, in part, to its ability to feed not only its own population, but those of conquered tribes as well. Through wise cultivation, storage and distribution of indigenous plants, including quinoa, the Incans were able to sustain their empire.

With the arrival of the Spanish, this was to change. Farmers were sent into the gold mines of Perú and Bolivia, and non-native crops were introduced for Spanish consumption, thus altering centuries of agricultural patterns. During the colonial period, quinoa use was associated strictly with native populations, leading to an undesirable perception of the seed as belonging to the lower class.

By the beginning of this century, quinoa had lost its status as the Mother Grain. Foreign crops, such as barley, had been introduced and surpassed quinoa in importance. Further decline occurred in Peru in the 1940s when the government began to import large amounts of wheat. Between 1941 and 1974, quinoa cultivation plummeted from 111,000 acres to 32,000 acres. Compounded with the growing acculturation of indigenous populations and the stigma of indigenous identification attached to its consumption, quinoa lost its grandeur and became just another subsistence crop for poorer rural families.


Quinoa Cultivation

With a growing concern regarding the loss of the world's genetic diversity, quinoa has found a renewed interest among scientists who believe its landraces (local crop varieties) could be useful in providing genetic source material for plant breeding. While there are over 80,000 edible species of plants grown around the world, only 150 are presently cultivated for commercial purposes. Dependence on so few species creates a danger to food production, should these species become threatened. Increased commercial growth of additional species, such as quinoa, decreases this possibility, as well as providing an economic outlet for poorer Andean nations.

As mentioned previously, quinoa grows almost exclusively in the Andes region. This is due to a number of reasons: First, the plant thrives at altitudes of approximately 9,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level; second, the plant can survive on as little as two inches of rainfall, which is not uncommon in the semi-arid regions of the Andes; finally, the quinoa plant is frost-resistant.

For these reasons, quinoa has been an especially important crop in the Collao Altiplano, in which, rising 12,400 feet above sea level, corn could never be produced. In certain regions of the southern Bolivian altiplano, there are even entire communities that subsist on quinoa and its export to Perú and Chile. Unfortunately, data have indicated that there is a 60% probability of crop failure in this region due to inclement weather.

A quinoa plant can be anywhere from three to over ten feet tall. Its stem can be either straight or branched, and its color is variable. Seeds may be white, yellow, gray, light brown, pink, black or red. The roots of the quinoa plant can reach depths of up to six inches.

While there are numerous varieties of the plant (Perú and Bolivia have over 2000 ecotypes), there are five general categories of quinoa:

1. Quinoa from the valley, which grows in the interandean valleys, between approximately 6,500 and 12,000 feet above sea level. These are big, branched plants which have a long growth period.

2. Altiplanic quinoa, which grows in the areas surrounding Lake Titicaca. These plants are particularly resistant to frost. They are short with straight stems, and have a short growth period.

3. Quinoa from the salares (salt flats), which are native to the Bolivian salares. These plants are relatively resistant, having adapted to salty and alkalidic soils. They have bitter seeds and have a high percentage of proteins.

4. Sea level quinoa, which grows in the south of Chile. These are normally not branched and have bitter, yellow seeds.

5. Subtropical quinoa, which grows in the interandean valleys of Bolivia. These plants have an intense green color that turns orange as they mature. Its seeds are small and can be white or orange.

Varieties of these five basic types of quinoa abound. In one area, researchers found some thirty varieties of quinoa that the local farmers were able to identify and differentiate. Commercial names of some of these varieties include "Utu Saya", "Michca", "Kutu Kutu", "Janco", and "Moco Moco." All of these are considered as quinua real, or true quinoa, in the marketplace. The most common varieties are Kancolla, Blanca de Junín and Sajama.

Cultivation of the quinoa plant requires loose soils that can retain an adequate amount of moisture. Soil should be rich in calcium, potash, and manganese, or improved by fertilization. Planting season begins in September and extends through November, and is some areas from January to March. Seeds may be broadcast or planted in rows that are two to three feet apart in areas called kallpares. Once planted, the seed is covered with soil by dragging thorned branches across the field or through harrowing, utilizing manual tools called taquiza and liwcana. It takes between five to seven months for a plant to mature.

Once plants have matured, and are harvested, seeds may be collected for consumption, or for market trade. In the southern Altiplano, the common form of commercialization, no longer as relevant as it once was, is the trueque, or bartar. Farmers interested in obtaining quinoa travel to production centers by truck, carrying wheat, rice, butter or other food items. The trueque consists in trading an equivalent amount of one product for another. A wheat farmer can offer ten grams of wheat in exchange for ten grams of quinoa. Since the 1960s, traditional monetary purchase of products has proliferated.


High in Nutrients at 10,000 Feet

Another major reason for renewed interest in the quinoa seed is its extremely nutritious qualities. In the diet of ancient inhabitants of the Americas, quinoa was the primary replacement for animal proteins. The quinoa seed is not necessarily as high in protein as some would have it, but it contains a combination of a greater proportion of important amino acids. These contain essential proteins for good health. In five categories of essential amino acids, quinoa has a greater amount than four other cereals.

In considering alimentation and the future of world food stocks, quinoa appears a most desirable choice for intensive cultivation. Studies have demonstrated, for example, that the addition of quinoa to the diet of a pregnant woman can improve milk secretion. In fact, scientists have demonstrated that quinoa has equal, if not superior, protein to powdered milk. Furthermore, quinoa has more than three times as much calcium, and twice as much phosphorous as wheat.


Nutritional Value of Quinoa (100 grams)

372 calories
Proteins 11.49 grams
Fat 4.86 grams
Carbohydrates 71.2 grams
Calcium 66 milligrams
Iron 8.5 milligrams
Vitamin A 1 gram
Vitamin C 1 gram
Thiamin 0.24 grams
Riboflavin 0.23 grams
Niacin 1.40 grams

Source: Bethzabe Iñiguez de Barrios. Mil Delicias de la Quinua. Oruro, Bolivia: (Editora Quelco, 1977), p. 29.


Quinoa may be served as a grain simply by removing the bitter outer coating, called saponin, and boiling the seeds in water for about fifteen minutes. Once cooked, the seeds become transparent with tiny white bands circling across the midsection and grow to three times their original size. The seed can even be popped like popcorn; a product called Kokitos is very popular with Peruvian children.

Andean inhabitants prepare a large number of dishes using quinoa. Typically, the boiled seed is added to soups and stews, such as the jank'akipa and the ch'aque. Toasted seeds, generally of wild varieties called ayaras, are also widely used for flour in baking breads, such as quispiña or mucuna. In Cuzco, breads fortified with quinoa are known as kallpa wawa, or strong children. One meal that has been consumed for generations is the pesque. For this dish, the quinoa is boiled in water to which llama fat is added, and beaten with a wooden spoon.

In addition to the seed, the leaves of the plant, called llipcha in Quechua, can be cooked, resulting in a spinach-like dish. They may also be served raw in a salad. Other uses of the leaves are for preparing tonics, puddings, and syrups. The bran can be added to flour to make multigrain breads. The saponin has foaming qualities that are sometimes employed to produce a frothier chicha.

In addition to providing people with highly-nutritious meals, quinoa has various uses in households and industry. The saponin, for example, serves multiple purposes: As soap for washing hair or clothes, in a compound for a fire extinguisher, or in photo processing. Stalks of the plant may be used in preparing bleach or dyes, and dried stalks are used as fuel.

Additionally, quinoa can be found in Andean medicine. For the illness chullparasqa, unwashed quinoa is ground and applied to the affected area as a cataplasm. To cure q'iwisqa, quinoa is ground with q'illu istallita, t'ula and llave, three other plants, and then applied as a hot poultice to the affected area.



Production and Government Promotion

With recognition of the nutritional benefits of quinoa comes campaigns to encourage greater consumption of the grain. Advocates seek to educate the public of the great nutritional benefits to be reaped in consuming quinoa. One example of public advocacy comes from Temas, an Argentinean science magazine. Written on the cover of each issue is the words, "Eat quinoa, food of the 21st century."

While magazines may have an impact on food choices due to wide readership, it is through government policy that quinoa has best been promoted. In 1973, the Bolivian government issued a Supreme Decree allowing for the use of funds to promote the commercialization of quinoa, through the National Wheat Institute. Two years later, the government adopted a resolution mandating that five percent quinoa flour must be added to all pastas, crackers and breads.

Perú has also pushed for greater quinoa production and consumption. As stated previously, years of dependence upon food imports led to a serious decline in quinoa cultivation. By the 1980s, Perú was importing an annual $400 million in food, including 80 percent of its wheat. Meanwhile, many Peruvians were failing to consume a diet containing essential nutrients. With the resurgence of government interest in quinoa production, however, this may soon change. The acreage planted in Perú since the 1970s has grown 30 percent, and continues to grow even further.

Andean countries have recognized the importance quinoa crops could play in the future of their economies, as well as in national subsistence. In Bolivia, the 1992 yield for quinoa production was 22,600 metric tons. That year, quinoa harvests in Perú yielded an average 10,800 metric tons. By 1997, Peruvian production was up to 21,000 metric tons, a 7.5% increase from the previous year. Ecuador likewise has increased its yield.


Developing the Taste Abroad

Presently, the United States consumes approximately three million pounds of quinoa each year, most of which has been imported from Bolivia, where it is cultivated by campesinos. In 1989, the U.S. Academy of Sciences published a study entitled, Los Cultivos Olvidados de los Incas, praising quinoa as a balanced and complete food. The National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) has concluded that quinoa is a complete natural source of nutrients for humans and has considered it as an important food source for longer duration space flights.

As Americans acquire a taste for the grain, companies devoted entirely to quinoa import, as well as improvement of the domestic crop, have been established in the United States. High in the Colorado Rockies, the Quinoa Corporation is one such company. Since 1982, the Quinoa Corporation has been the only company dedicated to marketing quinoa throughout North America. In 1986, the company sold 167,000 pounds of seeds.

While the Quinoa Corporation is involved in efforts to grow the plant in the United States, it has yet to successfully harvest a commercial crop. In the meantime, the company has contracted to purchase approximately two million pounds of seed from Andean countries such as Perú, which currently exports approximately 30 percent of its harvest.

The offices of the Quinoa Corporation are not the only place in Colorado in which one may encounter an interest in quinoa. In 1994, two agronomists, Duane Johnson and Sarah Ward of Colorado State University received a patent (No. 5,304,718) for the variety of Bolivian quinoa known as "Apelawa."

Although the researchers played no part in creating the varieties for which they received the patent, they would retain sole rights to the use of sterile male plants of Apelawa. This means they could also control the rights to any hybrids created using the Apelawa variety.

The patent, once discovered, created an incredible controversy. Farmers advocacy groups and indigenous rights organizations rapidly united facing a serious threat to free quinoa production in the Andes. The president of the Bolivian National Association of Quinoa Producers (ANAPQUI), Luis Oscar Mamani, requested that the Colorado scientists drop the patent. "Our intellectual integrity has been violated by this patent," he said, "Quinoa has been developed by the Andean agriculturists for millennia, it wasn't 'invented' by researchers in North America."

Opponents were eventually able to apply enough pressure to have the scientists drop the patent. Alejandro Bonifacio, a Bolivian researcher, summarized the importance of the victory:

The Apelawa patent was named after a village on Lake Titicaca where the CSU scientists first picked up seed samples. However, the patent covered a method of hybridizing quinoa that also subsumed 43 other traditional Andean quinoa varieties named after villages from Ecuador to Chile. If the patent had been enforced, Andean exports to the growing quinoa markets in North America and Europe would have been threatened. Even local production might have been affected. For now, local farmers are free to grow any variety of quinoa they choose. But how long will it be before others attempt to gain control of the quinoa industry through intellectual property rights? How safe are the world's food supplies when outsiders can enter a community and appropriate knowledge that has existed for centuries upon centuries?

As the Andean community begins to recognize the tremendous role quinoa can play, both in the health of its citizens and as an economically-viable industry, there is a growing threat over losing control of their natural resources and cultural patrimony. Multilateral trade agreements, such as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), incorporate intellectual property rights schemes in order to bestow ownership of local sacred plants and crops to outsiders. Once again, Atahualpa may be defeated by foreign conquerers.


Jordan Erdos has written a number of articles for including Biodiversity in the Amazon: Promoting Indigenous Stewardship as Policy, Ethnobotany, Property and Biodiversity: Ethical Dimensionsof Multi-Institutional Interests, Atawallpap Mikhunan: Quinoa, Mother Grain of the Incas and Plant Life and the Maya: Relationships and Conceptualizations . Contact the author via email.



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