Kept a secret among the Bolivian tribes for thousands of years, quinoa or the ‘grain of the gods’ has recently become a highly sought-after food in the West. Jemma Nicoll reports.

For five thousand years the key to human survival lived amongst the early tribes of Bolivia. Quinoa, known locally as the ‘grain of the gods’, nourished soldiers, strengthened communities and was worshiped as a life-preserving necessity.

But the secret’s out, and this superfood has revolutionised Australian supermarkets.

Lauran and Henriette Daman in their Kindreds Organics farm. Image: Honest to Goodness

Containing the eight amino acids essential for human growth, quinoa is the new top-shelf hero of the organic and health food sector. Never before has a gluten-free, high in protein, low GI superfood entered our market at such speed. Quinoa’s superior taste and ease of adaptation to cereals, breads, pasta and snack foods has suppliers rubbing their hands together and Aussie pantries stocked with the latest health trend.

However as with most trends, quinoa’s increased popularity comes with its own quandaries.

According to the New York Times, Bolivian quinoa consumption has fallen 34 per cent in recent years. Increased western imports have tripled prices forcing the local population to bid farewell to their staple ingredient.

Richard Seymour, General Manager of Melbourne’s Mount Zero Olives launched an Australian grown quinoa into retailers and began supplying to restaurants in December 2010.

“The guiding principles for Mount Zero have always been sustainable, regional and quality.

“So I would hope that we will never sell imported products based on [these] principles,” he said.

“Reading about the impact of exporting quinoa from South America on the local population, only confirms that we have made the right decision.”

Similarly, Sydney-based suppliers Honest to Goodness opt for domestic production. The company likes  “to stock Australian grown products as much as possible, supporting our farmers and also low food miles which is all supportive of sustainable and environmental practices,” said Marketing and Communications Officer Amanda Powell.

A supplier’s decisions to “think global, act local” is big business for Lauran and Henriette Daman, pioneers of Australia’s first and only organic quinoa crop. As the masterminds behind Kindred Organics, a family-owned and operated farm in northern Tasmania, they have successfully grown three seasons of quinoa.

Kindred Organics farm in Tasmania is where Australia's first organic quinoa is being grown. Image: Honest to Goodness

Mr Daman thinks it’s strange that imports take the main focus.

“As a nation I think it is far more important to be self-sufficient for environmental reasons and for food security,” he said. “And I like a challenge.”

Australian representatives of the internationally renowned fair trade food suppliers, Alter Eco, travel to Bolivia three times a year to visit quinoa producers. They have recently assessed the impact of the higher quinoa prices on local populations. Founding Director, Ilse Keijzer said the increase has had positive results.

“What is happening in Bolivia today is a fantastic opportunity to help these communities, as long as fair trade standards are guaranteed,” she said.

“The rising profile and price of quinoa on the world market is a unique opportunity for one of the poorest regions in the world to transform itself.”

Ms Keijzer acknowledges that quinoa is expensive for local populations, however says that it is not the only reason for changing food habits in the region.

“Globalisation in general has accelerated the taste for western processed foods and diets,” She said. “The purchase of fair trade quinoa has a very positive impact on the people.”

Mixed messages about the impact of foreign grown quinoa will not stop the Damans from leading the way in supplying Australian-grown produce.

“Quinoa is a primitive plant and only grows where it likes to grow. Lucky for us, it wants to grow on our farm,” Mr Daman said.

This article was first published on Reportage-Enviro by Jemma Nicoll.

Reportage is the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism’s (ACIJ) web magazine. It is dedicated to high quality independent journalism.

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