Quinoa, the grain of the Incas, has been cultivated in the
Andean highlands of South America for over 7000 years, yet
it is a relative newcomer on the international market. Pronounced
"keen-wa", quinoa comes from the Quechua language spoken by
the Incas and many indigenous in South America. With the European
conquest of the indigenous, the cultivation of quinoa was
suppressed possibly because it had a religious significance
for the Incas. The indigenous of the Andes continued to grow
it in small amounts. In the late 1900's interest in quinoa
began in the Andean nations of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and
Chile. That interest has now spread to North America, Europe,
Quinoa is a seed grain known for its delicate nutty flavor.
Quick cooking, it holds well, and blends nicely with a wide
variety of ingredients. Because of its high nutritional profile
quinoa is sold in health food stores; but gourmets are now
recognizing it for its pleasing flavor and crunchy texture.
Today in Peru and Bolivia, where most quinoa is produced,
it is one specific variety bred to be large, white, and bland
in flavor like rice. There is some quinoa being cultivated
in Colorado and Canada; but only a few varieties will grow
and the climatic conditions are not advantageous.
A few years ago an experiment was started in Riobamba, central
Ecuador to produce heirloom quinoa of superior flavor and
cleanliness like that of the Incas. This has grown into one
of the most successful development projects in South America.
Four organizations have combined forces on this project: The
People's Educational Radio of Ecuador (ERPE), a German organic
certification organization, Bio Control System (BCS), an American
importer, Inca Organics, and the Canadian Development Fund
of Ecuador (FECD). ERPE is the coordinating and teaching body
of the group in both Spanish and Quechua. BCS controls the
organic certification process to the strict standards of the
European Common Market, and FECD has provided funds for capital
projects such as the post harvest cleaning and packaging facility
run by ERPE. Inca Organics pre-pays for the quinoa so that
ERPE is able to purchase the quinoa at a fair price from the
indigenous when harvested, not when shipped. It also provides
an international market for the quinoa.
The heirloom quinoa that is produced is made up of the indigenous
varieties used in the Andes since before the Incas. This results
in a complexity of color and flavor favored by gourmets internationally.
This heirloom quinoa is also washed in 3 separate operations
to remove the saponin, a bitter tasting covering of the seeds.
This process allows for the removal of any bitter taste while
retaining the whole-grain seed. The quinoa of Peru and Bolivia
is mechanically processed to get rid of the saponin and thus
is not unlike refined rice or white flour without the germ.
This means that the whole-grain heirloom quinoa is much higher
in fiber and vitamins as well as having a more complex flavor.
The washing process also allows for a cleaner ready-to-use
product that is much easier to use since it doesn't have to
be rinsed. All of this processing provides additional jobs
for the indigenous of the community.
In 1999 the development project grew from the original 298
families to 580 families working on small plots of land in
34 communities. This resulted in 57 tons of quinoa exported
to the United States. In 2000, 1200 families exported about
150 tons of organic quinoa. Plans include 2500 families in
2001 and 4000 families in 2002. If the 2002 goal is met, 95%
of the indigenous families living in 145 communities will
harvest 900 tons of organic products. Other products of the
Incas, natural and black amaranth, plus the Andean lupin bean
will also be cultivated.
In general the indigenous communities of the Ecuadorian highlands
are poor, live on unproductive eroded landholdings and suffer
from a high incidence of malnutrition. The livelihood of these
communities is based on agricultural production of traditional
crops such as potatoes and corn. Production is generally low
and many of the farmers have used strong chemical fertilizers
and pesticides to maintain production. What little they do
produce has little value in the marketplace. The farmers who
currently benefit from this project have a typical income
of $227 a year. ERPE and Inca Organics estimate that this
income was increased over 50% to $357 a year for the participants
in 1999. This income will improve in the coming years.
The introduction of organic agriculture in these communities
has been facilitated by years of consciousness raising about
the dangers of misuse of agrochemicals through radio programs
run by ERPE. ERPE, with the help of BCS, has an experimental
organic farm that serves as a demonstration and teaching tool.
Worm farming is also being introduced into communities. The
current economic crisis in Ecuador has helped promoters of
organic agriculture because agrochemicals are too expensive
for the small indigenous farmer.
The organic agriculture builds on a cultural base of environmentally
friendly agriculture practiced by the Incas. The indigenous
farmers are participating in the rescue of their culture through
the rediscovery and implementation of farming techniques once
commonly practiced by their ancestors. In addition, ERPE and
Inca Organics have a purchasing strategy that returns 1/3
of the organic quinoa harvested under the project to the producing
indigenous family. This combats the malnutrition of the indigenous
and is returning them to the high protein nutritious traditional
diet of their ancestors.
Heirloom quinoa is distributed in the United States by Tekla
Distributing, Chicago, IL; American Roland Food Corp. NY,
NY; Chieftain Rice, Spooner, WI; Eden Foods, Clinton, MI;
Mezza, Inc. Gurnee, IL; North Farm Cooperative, Madison, WI;
Ozark Cooperative, Fayetteville, AK, and Tree of Life, Bloomington,
IN. It will be introduced in Europe at Bio-Fach in Nuremberg,
Germany this year.
Quinoa can be used in both savory and sweet dishes. Typically
in South America is used in soups, stews, and desserts. Quinoa
flour lends a delicate nutty flavor to quick breads. It is
gluten-free, easily digestible and kosher for Passover. Because
quinoa contains more protein than most grain and is a complete
protein, it is a perfect base for vegetarian dishes.
For more information visit Inca