Quarrels over Quinoa

Quinoa is an iconic crop for this century. It is resilient to salinity in the soil and thus can potentially withstand changes to the climate. It is also highly nutritious thus offering food security in a world that has to ramp up food production three fold in the next 50 years.

Lisa Hamilton, writing in Harpers explores the battle for the right to improve varieties and commercialise quinoa. The following dynamic is playing out. Seed companies want to develop improved varieties of quinoa – this would enable it to be grown more widely beyond the Andes with obvious food security benefits around the world. However, Bolivia, where much of the world’s germplasm is found, does not want to share its genetic material. For Bolivia, it is the property of the indigenous peoples of the Andes. Their fears are also economic, namely that if the US or Brazil were to cultivate the crop on a large scale, Altiplano farmers would face greater competition on world markets and thus lose income.

Seed companies and plant breeders makes several counter arguments:

Wouldnt improvement in quinoa varieties (through releasing germplasm) benefit farmers, including those in Bolivia?

Breeding of new varieties would enable the plant to grow in other countries thus increasing access to food

The author argues that public ownership and storage of genetic material in Bolivia is no safeguard for its future, citing Bolivia’s largest gene bank for quinoa burning down in 1998. She quotes a Bolivian geneticist Emigdio Ballon. He abhors patents but still believes that seed should be shared.

“Quinoa doesn’t belong to the Bolivian government or to corporations. Any food, any seeds, they are very sacred – they are for serving humanity. And if you don’t have their diversity stored in other places, you are in trouble. Because we never know what’s coming tomorrow”.

 

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