Who owns quinoa?

Can anyone really own a food?

For instance, take quinoa, the ancient grain of the Andes. The United Nations declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa. Its value is skyrocketing -- in a matter of months organic quinoa has gone from about $3 per pound to $8 per pound. It could be a tool for addressing food security issues in the future.

"In order for it to grow around the world, it needs to be bred by plant breeders down to lower altitude," says journalist Lisa Hamilton. "But in order to do that, plant breeders need seeds. The trouble is that those seeds -- that genetic diversity -- are owned by the people of the Andes. They are not interested in sharing them."

Hamilton is the author of "The Quinoa Quarrel" and "Native Lands," which appeared in Harper's Magazine. The stories were produced in collaboration with the Food and Environment Reporting Network.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: What is it with quinoa? Why is this so important?

Lisa Hamilton
Lisa Hamilton

Lisa Hamilton: There's a growing number of people who think that quinoa could be an incredible tool for addressing issues of food security in the uncertain future of population growth and climate change.

It begins with the fact that quinoa is an extraordinarily nutritious food. It has calcium and iron, essential fatty acids. It's also the only plant food to offer a complete protein. It's on par with milk and eggs in some ways, but that's complemented by the fact that it agronomically is incredibly resilient.

It will grow places that other food crops won't: places with droughts, places with salty soils, places that are cold. There is a growing number of people who think that it could help increase food production particularly on marginal lands, which is something that we're going to need in the future.

LRK: Where is it grown now?

LH: The challenge is that quinoa is native to the Altiplano, which is the high plain that stretches through the Andes in South America in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. It's a very unique environment. Its lowest points are at 11,000 feet above sea level. The soil is poor, the air is thin, the sun is blazing there and even during the summer there can be these bone-chilling winds. This is where the vast majority of quinoa still grows.

In order for it to grow around the world, it needs to be bred by plant breeders down to lower altitude. We're not talking about genetic engineering, we're talking about conventional, classical plant breeding. But in order to do that, plant breeders need seeds. The trouble is that those seeds -- that genetic diversity -- are owned by the people of the Andes. They are not interested in sharing them.

LRK: That does raise a philosophical question, doesn't it? Because from what I understand, quinoa has been growing there for thousands of years.

LH: Absolutely. When you frame it quickly like this, it seems sort of selfish of the indigenous people of the Andes to not share their seeds. But as you talk with people there, as I did for this article, you get a larger perspective.

The Altiplano is populated largely by indigenous Aymara and Quechua people. It was their ancestors who domesticated quinoa thousands of years ago. The Altiplano is one of the poorest places in the western hemisphere. Within Bolivia, one of the poorest countries in the world, quinoa is this rare, economic opportunity. But that's not the whole story.

When I was in Bolivia reporting this story, I met a quinoa farmer named German Nina. I met him in his quinoa field. But when he agreed to be interviewed, he said that he wanted to do it at the top of a volcano that rises just above his town in the southern Altiplano.

German Nina
German Nina (Photo: © Lisa M. Hamilton / Harper's Magazine)

On Easter Sunday we went up this volcano called Thunupa -- from 12,000 feet at the base up 3,000 feet. I'm struggling at that altitude. The quinoa farmer, German, was chugging along in front of me, politely stopping every once in awhile.

When we got to the top and looked out over the land, his quinoa fields at the very base, he said, "Thunupa, this volcano, is the origin of life." For him and other Aymara people, this volcano was a god. It was this god who gave them quinoa. So while our conversation touched on things like patents, international treaties and nutrition, really he wanted to have it in a context of the cultural and spiritual importance of this plant to him and his people.

LRK: This is where I think things gets so complicated. Does anybody really have a right to say to someone else, "You have to share what is perhaps either indigenous or has been the bedrock of your culture"?

LH: I think it's a really good question.

For decades, perhaps even centuries, the Bolivians did share their quinoa gladly because there was no reason not to. For thousands of years, seeds were simply part of the commons. They were shared freely. Even as valuable as they were, no one considered that you could actually own them.

But then in the mid-20th century came intellectual property. Particularly with patents, suddenly there was this concept of ownership introduced. So as soon as someone is allowed to take seeds out of the commons and own them, then everyone has to own their plants because if they don't, then someone else might come along and take them. Even if you don't believe in ownership as the Aymara don't, you need to stake your claim so that other people can't exploit what you're holding.

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