Science Blog

Let Them Eat Quinoa Cake

Luigi Guarino

Getting a chenopodiaceous Andean pseudo-cereal on a coffee shop menu is as difficult as it sounds. My friend Stefano Padulosi is endearingly self-effacing about this achievement in a recent blog post extolling the myriad virtues – and how to make the most of them – of neglected and underutilized species (NUS) in general and quinoa (the said chenopodiaceous etc. etc.) in particular:

Being able to buy quinoa cake in an important chain of coffee houses like Alexandar coffee is the result of a 10 year Bioversity project funded by IFAD – a project that involved hundreds of people from poor communities across Bolivia, along with researchers, university professors, NGOs, marketing experts and policy makers. It successfully brought NUS to the marketplace where they have become part of the everyday coffee shop menu of the younger people who go to these kinds of places.

In fact, he had a lot personally to do with the success story he describes, which involved bringing together the hard-nosed capitalists who run the Alexander chain of coffee shops with the rural cooperatives who grow, and now supply them with, the quinoa for their fancy cakes. What Stefano did with Alexander is just one of many similar activities which his project has been carrying out in Bolivia and other countries for a decade. They have made a very significant, perhaps critical, contribution to revitalizing the cultivation and enhancing the perceived value of some locally important, but unjustly neglected (by researchers and policymakers, that is, not farmers!) crops like quinoa around the world.

But is marketing enough?

Stefano knows it isn’t. He quite rightly points out that the sort of demand-side intervention that the Alexander quinoa cake story exemplifies is merely the last link in a chain that goes all the way back to conserving the diversity of the crop. The connections can be complicated, it is true, but all too often those links are not joined up at all. That’s quite disheartening for us here at the Trust on occasion, for example when we’re asked what exactly we’re doing for farmers anyway. Conserving the diversity of a crop in a genebank at global level, which is what we focus on, is unfortunately sometimes seen as somehow separate from, if not in downright competition with, empowering farmers to market their products, say, or even to conserve their crop diversity in community seed banks.

In fact, of course, you need both. Because what happens if those marketing networks you so painstakingly nurture become fixated on one or two varieties only? What happens if something bad happens to your community seed bank? What happens when climate change drastically decreases the area where your crop can be grown? What happens if there’s a new pest or disease? What happens if Alexander’s customers move on to amaranth crunch bars for a few years, before re-discovering their taste for traditional quinoa sponge?

What happens is that you go back to the genebanks. To reintroduce lost crops and varieties, maybe from a neighbouring country, which all of a sudden people want again. And to breed new varieties which produce more, or are adapted to new conditions, or fulfill new market demands. Problem is, the long-term maintenance of seeds in a cold store, with all the ancillary seed testing, regeneration and documentation work it entails, is a costly enterprise with an impact on rural livelihoods which is real enough, but so diffuse in space and time it is often invisible. Certainly compared to helping out with processing or marketing. So Bolivia and other Andean countries continue struggling to conserve their extensive quinoa collections, while the La Paz middle-class enjoy their quinoa cake. For now, that is.

Yes, you need both. You need the marketing networks and the better processing machines and the rural seed fairs and the community seed banks. And you need professionally staffed national and international genebanks with secure, long-term funding. You need quinoa and other neglected crops to be on Annex 1 of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, to facilitate international exchange of germplasm and collaboration and funding. We all – indigenous farmers with an eye for the main chance, entrepreneurial coffee shop owners, sophisticated urbanites with a sweet tooth – need both. Only that way can we have our chenopodiaceous Andean pseudo-cereal cake, and eat it too.

 

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