The International Year of Quinoa was originally proposed by the Plurinational State of Bolivia at the 37th Session of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in June/July of 2011 for the year 2013. The purpose of the proposal was to promote awareness of the benefits, qualities and potential of quinoa as an element to combat hunger worldwide given the exceptional nutritional qualities it presents. Bolivia’s proposal was supported by 19 other countries from around the world, and in December of 2011 the United Nations General Assembly declared 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa.
The UN General Assembly declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa to recognize the Andean indigenous peoples who have controlled, protected and preserved quinoa. It also affirmed the need to focus world attention on the role that quinoa biodiversity can play, owing to the nutritional value of quinoa, in the areas of food security, nutrition and the eradication of poverty in support of the Millennium Development Goals.
Thus, quinoa was given an international year partly based on its potential to contribute to food security, nutrition and poverty eradication, as quinoa is currently only a minor crop on the world stage being primarily grown in only two countries, Bolivia and Peru. Even in Bolivia, it pales in comparison to soybeans, where in 2011 according to FAOSTAT, Bolivia produced 2.2 million tonnes of soybeans compared to quinoa at 38,000 tonnes.
In contrast, 2008 was declared the International Year of the Potato, whose website declares that the “potato is already an integral part of the global food system. It is the world’s number one non-grain food commodity”. While the FAO team coordinating the International Year of the Potato had the history of potato cultivation and consumption in the majority of the countries of the world to draw on, the International Year of Quinoa (IYQ) team had to build a program that both recognized quinoa’s past, primarily coming from the Andes region of South America, while also promoting a future for quinoa cultivation and consumption on the world market.
Quinoa cultivation has taken an interesting path. The IYQ website states that quinoa cultivation has doubled and tripled in the traditional producing countries of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador between 1992 and 2010. Conversely, quinoa cultivation took a huge fall from the 1950s to the 1970s, as availability of foods like wheat flour and rice increased in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador (Cusack, 1984). Peru, which produced about 41,000 tonnes of quinoa in 2011 according to FAOSTAT, was producing roughly the same amount in 1951 – 42,500 tonnes – before dropping to about 8 tonnes in 1975 (Narrea, 1976). So does the recent quinoa boom of the 1990s and 2000s indicate a regional crop ready to take the world stage, or a trend that will soon fade? In a July 11th Washington Post Wonkblog article titled, “Quinoa should be taking over the world. This is why it isn’t,” by Lydia DePillis, it states that some of the world’s largest grain processors have no plans to start sourcing quinoa. States Duke University professor and agricultural economist Marc Bellemare in the article, “We still haven’t fully unbundled what the decision bundle is [for quinoa]. It’s like shining a flashlight in a big dark room.”
Considering then the unknown future of quinoa as a world crop to fight against hunger, malnutrition and poverty, how should an organization such as the FAO then promote quinoa during its international year? The FAO’s mandate from the United Nations according to its website is to improve nutrition, increase agricultural productivity, raise the standard of living in rural populations and contribute to global economic growth. Along with that challenging list of responsibilities, the FAO is also responsible to 192 member nations who come with a wide array of governmental institutions, cultures and ecological climates.
This is where my work this summer came in. My role as a dietitian and Master of Public Policy student, along with another student intern from the U.S., was to create accurate documents on the nutrition of quinoa that could be used in the IYQ’s upcoming recipe and technical books. For an organization like FAO, accuracy is important, and with the rapidly expanding market for quinoa, often called a “super food”, it was important for us to portray quinoa in a way that was both positive yet truthful in the nutrition that quinoa can provide.
Although quinoa has often been portrayed as food high in protein, a recent study of quinoa in three regions of Chile by Miranda et al (2012) demonstrated quinoa to have a protein range of about 11 to 16 percent of its dry weight, a similar range to most quinoa nutrition studies. This protein range places quinoa slightly above most grains such as corn and rice, but far below that of legumes such as beans and lentils. What does set quinoa apart from most plant foods that is important to highlight is the balance of its essential amino acids.
The World Health Organization and FAO set a recommended scoring pattern for the essential amino acids per 100 grams of protein. This scoring pattern then signifies the ideal essential amino acid (EAA) pattern one would need to maintain proper health. While grains are often lacking in the EAA lysine and legumes in the sulphur containing EAAs, quinoa has a good balance between all eight EAAs needed for both children and adults within its protein. So while it doesn’t necessarily stand out for its protein quantity, it does stand out for its protein quality.
In addition to its protein quality, quinoa is good source of fiber, unsaturated fat and minerals such as iron and magnesium. While quinoa does have many nutritional benefits, like we often say in nutrition, it is important to eat quinoa as a part of a well-balanced meal to achieve good overall nutrition.
The photo included in this blog post is of Maria Jose, the FAO nutritionist for the Latin American and Caribbean region, and myself after we cooked green peppers stuffed with quinoa and garbanzo bean. It was a dish that we came up with along with Shelly Johnston, a Mississippi State nutrition student, to potentially put in the International Year of Quinoa recipe book. Quinoa isn’t cheap. Four hundred grams of quinoa seeds cost 3,500 Chilean pesos, or about $7. While it does have its nutritional benefits, for the cost I would prefer to just use rice, and save that extra $6 for something else – maybe some vegetables and garbanzo beans perhaps?
We cooked bell peppers stuffed with quinoa, garbanzo, vegetables, and merquen (smoked ground red pepper).
Cusack, D.F. (1984) Quinua: grain of the Incas. Ecologist, 14: 21-31.
Narrea, R.A. (1976) La producción de quinua en el Perú. In II Convención Internacional de Quenopodiáceas: Quinua-Cañihua, 26-29 Abril 1976, pp. 31-34. Informes de Conferencias, Cursos y Reuniones N 96. Universidad Tomás Frías, Potosí, Bolivia.
Miranda, M., Vega-Gálvez, A., Quispe-Fuentes, I., Rodríguez, M.J., Maureira, H., Martínez, E.A. (2012) Nutritional aspects of six quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.) ecotypes from three geographical areas of Chile. Chilean Journal of Agricultural Research. 72(2): 175-181.