Finding the Seeds of Life

Quinoa’s and Humankind’s Partnership

By George Gemelas


[dropcap]B[/dropcap]uen provecho,” the waiter said. Before walking away, he smiled again, leaving me with my first limeño dish. Pisco sours were sipped, bread was broken, and the main course–meat, potatoes, and rice—was devoured. In the heart of Lima’s tourist district, Panchita Restaurant served only the best Peruvian-Creole food. I had wanted to eat quinoa for my first meal, so I skimmed the menu for it. I found no such dish.

I was in Lima, Peru, an oasis on a desert coast, to understand how quinoa production is affecting Peruvian society. In recent years, the demand for quinoa has boomed; quinoa has been deemed a “superfood” in American mainstream culture. But quinoa has been around for much longer; it has been a central food source for the Peruvian people for millennia. It grows best high up on the plateaus of the Andes in Peru and Bolivia, the altiplanos, a place where the atmosphere starts to wisp away, where days are hot and nights freezing cold. Over time, the people in the Andes have adapted to this low-oxygen climate, developing bigger chests and stronger lungs. And, like its people, quinoa has found a way to exist in Peru’s many microclimates. Some varieties grow in the jungle, some in the freezer, some on the coast, some in the mountains. In Peru, the years have cultivated both a superfood and superpeople.    

A grain of quinoa is smaller than an oat and even a grain of rice. But unlike oats or rice, both cereal grains, quinoa is a pseudocereal, known in Peru as a grano andino. Traditional cereal grains, or simply grains, are monocotyledons and come from grasses, while pseudocereals, like quinoa and chia, are dicotyledons, not grasses but relatives of spinach and beets. We eat the seeds of the quinoa plant which are picked from its stalks. Although in stores you will find only a few varieties of quinoa, hundreds exist throughout Peru. For generations, quinoa has been planted and picked by the peoples of Peru.

Quinoa’s rapid market growth was boosted when Oprah Winfrey included quinoa on the list of foods in her self-cleanse series. Likewise, in 2013, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) declared the “Year of the Quinoa,” which recognizes the healthfulness and growing versatility of the crop, which according to the FAO’s website “offers an alternative food source for those countries suffering from food insecurity.” Quinoa is more than just a fad; it has the potential to seriously address the growing food needs of Earth’s 7 billion people.

Rightly so: quinoa has great appeal. It’s healthy. Quinoa has a variety of amino acids, vitamins, and micronutrients which provide for a well-balanced and filling meal. It’s a universal food. It doesn’t have gluten and is widely considered kosher. It’s gastronomically versatile. It can be used plainly or in prepared forms. On Yale Dining plates, it comes as a vegetarian burger with sweet potato and quinoa, in stuffed peppers, and in pilafs with roasted sweet potatoes and walnuts, with sautéed vegetables, or with black beans and corn. These qualities attract countries interested in consuming only the best and healthiest. Western countries consume around 87% of all exported Peruvian quinoa. The U.S. consumes half.  

 What I found odd was that the superfood was hard to find in Peru, whether at the finest restaurants like Panchita or at the humblest of street vendors. If I did find quinoa, it would be in the salad section. It was easier to find anticuchos, beef hearts on a stick and blended frog smoothies than it was to find a restaurant with quinoa dishes. Where was this so-called “superfood”?  

I turned my attention to the supply chain. The quinoa eaten in the States is commercialized, high-standard quinoa. This quinoa has to be planted, grown for 5-8 months, certified for organic labeling, cut at its stalk, separated from its stalk, stored, packed, sold to a middleman, transported to a processing center, washed of its saponin coating, sieved for pebbles, analyzed, quality controlled, and then packaged for export (not to mention quality controlled again, branded, transported to stores, and sold in the importing country). This process is not simple, requiring a slew of specialized people and machinery to slug the seeds along to the moneyed masses.

Before globalization, quinoa was perhaps grown more simply. International consumption requires mass production, standardization, and quality control of the product, so demand driven by international markets exacts much from farmers. Consider this: from 2012- 2014, Peruvian quinoa exports multiplied by three times. Before, farmers grew quinoa at a small scale, forming communal fields, called ainokas, that divided up labor. This form of organization was highly compatible with long-lasting farming but incompatible with large-scale production. Now, small farmers trying to meet the high standards of the developed world face an uphill battle. If you sell to companies like Kellogg’s, you have to be perfect. Quinoa, once a long-term partner of Peru’s people, is now simply a superfood for the global consumer.

It was surprising that in the country of quinoa production could I only find quinoa dotting salad bars and artisanal markets. The price hikes perhaps are the greatest cause of quinoa’s absence. Quinoa prices have jumped at least three to four times. According to Professor Luis Mujica of the Universidad Católica in Lima, diets in rural areas have started transitioning from quinoa to less rich foods like potatoes and rice. The price of quinoa, driven up by international demand, prevents even Peruvians from eating this once accessible highly nutritious crop.

The absence of quinoa in Peruvian restaurants also stems from the country’s traditional notion of quinoa. At least from the perspective of many limeños, quinoa is often seen as a food for the rural people, for the poor. For one abuela, it was “alimento para los animales.” One hostel worker told me how he ate quinoa: Cook the quinoa. Add some sugar. Drink on the way to school. People did not consider quinoa an element of fine dining, but they rather saw it as a filling food.

Global demand is driving up prices for only those who can pay, preventing those who might most need quinoa to benefit from it.  

First, there is the problem of scale. 99% of quinoa produced comes from either Peru or Bolivia. Forced to grow elsewhere, quinoa often requires more fertilizers and pesticides to protect the plant against the variability in climate. This, in many instances, disqualifies the product from organic certification. In Peru, we see this with the mass cultivation of quinoa on the desert coast.

There is also the problem of connectivity. Farmers that can grow quinoa the best lack the connection to international markets. The government in Peru has responded with programs like Sierra Exportadora, which attempts to connect poor rural areas to international markets. Similarly, NGOs try to improve rural locales to improve the quality of life. Each strategy attempts to fit growers of quinoa and their traditional ways to a globalized food supply framework. Plant and pick, plant and pick, plant and pick. We need a new framework for ensuring foods like quinoa last and reach those who need it most.

The long chain of quinoa production is also facing another challenge: our changing climate. Ph.D. student Cecilia Suiero says “the climate has to be in favor of quinoa.” Sudden weather changes, associated with El Niño and global weather trends, have tampered with the stability of the quinoa production line. This year there was a frost, rendering the seeds of the superfood useless.  Above 35 degrees Celsius, the seed does not germinate. When asked about the effect of a warmer and more variable climate, the owner of Quinoa Andina said “[We] can control everything. We can control the water. We can control the fertilizations. We can work in the market. We can work in the factory. We can buy machines. But we cannot [control] the weather.”

There is, however, hope.

Marta Palacios, the head of the kitchen at Panchita, had some perspective on quinoa. She has started experimenting with new quinoa dishes. Cooking quinoa requires care and knowledge of how it works.  It’s “bien delicado.” For proper consistency, you have to watch the “clima,” the weather, in order to make sure the moisture doesn’t mess with the consistency of the final product. She, along with other kitchens across Lima, have begun to use their intimate knowledge of this food to make it accessible to those of the 21st century.

Hearing Marta talk about caring for kitchen reminded me of the way those who have cultivated quinoa for generations. Listen to the quinoa. Respond to the quinoa. Innovate with the quinoa.

In this 21st century world, we have the technologies and knowledge to shift food production to meet the challenges of our growing world. Understanding how the Andean people cultivated quinoa and combining it with today’s knowledge might provide a way to respond to the challenges of our growing, hungry world. The relationship that Peruvian people had with quinoa– a relationship that resulted in a superfood and superpeople– was a partnership between man and nature. In the genetic diversity of quinoa’s DNA and the traditions and mindset of its people is a legacy, a guide. That legacy speaks of respect, patience, and action in order to create a healthier, well-fed, and more resilient human population.


George Gemelas ‘18 is an Ethics, Politics and Economics major in Davenport College. Contact him at