LA PAZ, Bolivia The growing global demand for quinoa by health-food enthusiasts isnt just raising prices for the Andean super grain and living standards among Bolivian farmers. Quinoa fever is running up against physical limits.
The scramble to grow more is prompting Bolivian farmers to abandon traditional land- management practices, endangering the fragile ecosystem of the arid highlands, agronomists say.
Quinoa currently fetches as much as $3,200 a ton, up nearly threefold from five years ago a surge fed by foodies making quinoa a hot health-food product based on its high content of protein and amino acids. Its also gluten-free. Though used like a grain, quinoa is actually an edible seed.
The United Nations has designated 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa, and Bolivian President Evo Morales celebrated it in New York last week along with Perus first lady, Nadine Heredia. Their countries are the worlds two biggest producers.
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization believes quinoa can make an important contribution to global food security and fighting hunger.
Quinoa can grow in very diverse climactic and environmental conditions, including climates with very little rainfall. And thats especially important on a planet that is warming where desertification and the erosion are more pressing than ever, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said in New York.
Quinoa has been cultivated in the Andean highlands since at least 3000 B.C., growing natively from Chile north to Colombia. It grows best at high altitudes in climates with cool days and even cooler nights.
In December, Morales mounted a tractor and plowed furrows into the soil of his highlands hometown, Orinoca, to promote quinoa as sowing season got under way. Townspeople sacrificed a llama to ask Pachamama, or Mother Earth, for a good harvest.
But last week, Morales was out chastising farmers for having planted quinoa in pastures where llamas traditionally graze. Without the llamas manure, little would grow in the arid highlands more than two miles high where the most prized variety of quinoa originates.
Quinoa goes hand in hand with the natural fertilizer that llamas produce and there must be a nutritional crossing between the two, said Rossmary Jaldin, an expert in the crop.
Bolivias deputy minister of rural development, Victor Hugo Vasquez, said 30 percent of his countrys 70,000 quinoa producers are now children of peasants who left the farm but have been drawn back by high quinoa prices.
He and the president of Bolivias National Association of Quinoa Producers, Juan Crispin, say many of the growers dont follow traditional farming methods and are depleting soils because they dont rotate crops.
Were not going to work with them, said Vasquez. We are not going to help them.
Morales government declared quinoa a strategic priority two years ago and has since disbursed $10 million in credits for increasing yields to cash in on the boom.
The countrys quinoa crop expanded from 240 square miles in 2009 to 400 square miles last year, when it produced a total of 58,000 metric tons, according to the Rural Development Ministry. That is more than 40 times the production in 2000.
The United States imports 52 percent of Bolivian quinoa while 24 percent goes to Europe, where France and the Netherlands are big buyers.
Peru, meantime, raised its production to 43,640 metric tons last year from 29,640 tons in 2009 and exported $30 million worth, up 20 percent from the previous year.
Their gains have caught the attention of potential competitors. Farmers are beginning to plant quinoa in other countries, including Canada, Australia, China, India and Paraguay. A few thousand acres are harvested in a highland valley of the U.S. state of Colorado and also in Minnesota.
Bolivian farmers are complaining to their government that they need harvesting machinery because most of their quinoa is harvested by hand. Morales administration has invited South Korean engineers to design the desired machines.
Duane Johnson, a former Colorado state agronomist who helped introduce quinoa to the United States three decades ago, said quinoa can be commercially planted and harvested just like grain.
Its just the size of millet, said Johnson, who now lives in Bigfork, Montana. I think the problem you get into in South America is getting enough land to justify a combine.
When he was growing quinoa in the late 1980s, the United States accounted for 37 percent of the worlds quinoa crop, Johnson said. Today, it has about 2 percent, he said.
Environmental concerns about the expansion of quinoa in Bolivia arent the only problems that experts see.
Near Lake Titicaca, in some of the highlands most fertile soils, quinoa is now showing up where it hadnt before been planted, replacing potatoes, beans and oats in some fields.
Experts fear that trend could harm food stocks in this poor nation where one in five children suffers from chronic malnutrition.
And with quinoa now costing three times as much as rice in La Paz markets, it isnt eaten much by Bolivians. Its consumption averages a little more than a kilogram, (2.2 pounds) per year for each Bolivian.
Morales said at U.N. headquarters Wednesday that its not true that due to an increase in the price of quinoa less and less is being consumed in Bolivia.
Domestic consumption is actually up threefold in the past four years, he said, to 12,000 metric tons.
Associated Press writers Carlos Valdez in La Paz and Carla Salazar and Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.