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Market Focus : A Grain of Hope for Battered Economies : A staple food long revered by indigenous peoples in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia is drawing worldwide interest.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Ecuador, Nestle is marketing a popular baby cereal made with quinoa. In Bolivia, an association of peasant farmers is exporting 350 metric tons of the stuff a year to the United States and Europe. In Peru, non-governmental organizations are helping highland communities reintroduce quinoa cultivation.

With a more complete range of proteins in greater concentrations than any other grain, quinoa is comparable to milk in nutritional value, experts say. Sometimes called the super grain of the Incas, quinoa was a staple throughout the Andes for thousands of years. It has been an increasingly neglected crop for much of this century, but there are signs of a comeback.

Nestle, the Swiss-based food company, invested millions of dollars and seven years in Ecuador to develop quinoa as a commercial grain. About four years ago, Nestle decided that the cost of promoting consumption on a world scale would be too high. Furthermore, a Nestle official said available supplies could not meet mass demand and the price of quinoa could not compete with other grains, in part because of their larger production levels.

In some important ways, however, the project was successful. Nestle now makes a Nestum baby cereal for the Ecuadorean market with quinoa and honey, and it sells better than the company’s rice-based Nestum. Meanwhile, whole-grain quinoa has become a popular item on supermarket shelves here in the land of the ancient Incas, mostly as a soup thickener and rice substitute.

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While experts do not see quinoa as a substitute for wheat, mainly because it is not suitable by itself for making bread, it is widely regarded as a potentially important source of protein, starch, vitamins and minerals.

Technically, quinoa is a “pseudo-grain” because the plant is not a grass but rather is related to spinach. The disc-shaped grain is smaller than rice and cooks just as easily.

A few years ago, the product was unavailable in urban Ecuador except in produce markets. The crop was grown mostly by subsistence farmers in the highlands and was regarded in the cities as a lowly food for poor Indians.

That began changing as Nestle’s Ecuadorean research center, named Latinreco, began developing improved strains of quinoa and more efficient cultivation methods in the early 1980s. Then commercial farmers, encouraged by Latinreco, began growing and marketing the crop.

“Today if you go into any supermarket, you will find clean, attractive quinoa, ready to eat,” said Christian Wahli, general manager of Latinreco.

For its research, Latinreco buys six to 10 metric tons of quinoa a year from the country’s main producer.

“Fourteen years ago I asked for one ton of quinoa, and there wasn’t that much in all of Ecuador,” Wahli said.

Thanks in part to Latinreco’s research, commercial cultivation of quinoa in Ecuador today yields up to five metric tons per acre, triple the production with old seeds and methods, he pointed out.

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International demand for quinoa has had much to do with its resurgence in the economies of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. As the health food movement expanded during the 1980s in the United States and Europe, quinoa was found to be a tasty food with impressive nutritional values. Exports of the grain from the Andean region began to grow, and the developed world’s interest gave quinoa new prestige among middle-class consumers in the Andean countries.

In the United States, the Quinoa Corporation of Los Angeles is the main company dedicated exclusively to marketing quinoa. It sells whole grain mostly for cooking but also produces quinoa flour for mixing with other flours, quinoa flakes for breakfast food and pastas of quinoa-corn and quinoa-wheat.

Two other companies, Arrowhead Mills and Eden Foods, also market quinoa products nationally. But David Schnorr, president of the Quinoa Corporation, said quinoa is “still just scratching the edge of the mainstream” in the U.S. consumer market.

Schnorr said that mass marketing quinoa would require a major investment by a big company such as Kellogg, General Mills or Campbell Soup. “They are all watching it, but for them to get involved in something like this you would have to be able to supply millions of pounds a month at a reasonable price,” he said.

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So far, neither North American or South American producers can do that. But someday, Schnorr said, he hopes they can and will. “I think quinoa is a grain that deserves to be sitting right next to rice and wheat in the marketplace,” he said.

Mario Tapia, a Peruvian agronomist, said Peru’s crop has increased from about 30,000 acres in 1989 to more than 50,000 acres now. Most is cultivated by hand or with oxen. Peru exports 30 to 40 metric tons of quinoa a year to Japan and about 150 tons to the United States, Tapia said.

About 20 non-governmental organizations in Peru are helping peasant farmers reintroduce or improve quinoa cultivation, the agronomist said. Tapia himself works with a group called the Assn. for the Rural Development of Cajamarca in the highlands of northern Peru.

He said the group has reintroduced quinoa to the area, working with about 1,200 families.

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But he doesn’t limit his efforts to Cajamarca. “Wherever I go I take quinoa to propagate,” he said.

In Bolivia, peasant farmers in the Andean highlands founded the National Assn. of Quinoa Producers in 1983 to market the grain both in their country and abroad. About 3,000 farmers now belong to the association, which buys between 20% and 25% of the nation’s quinoa production, said Freddy Magne, association president.

Magne said the association has plans for increasing exports and for industrializing some of its production. Next year, for example, he said it will begin marketing quinoa soup mixes and candy bars made with quinoa, honey and chocolate.

The U.N. Development Fund has invested more than $1 million in a project to install commercial processing plants in the Bolivian highlands. Another organization of Bolivian quinoa farmers has received financing from the Inter-American Development Bank for processing machinery and tractors.

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In the United States, Canada and Europe, a growing number of agricultural development specialists are working with quinoa. They have adapted the plant through selective breeding and genetic engineering to produce well in western Canada, Washington State, southern Colorado, Denmark, Britain and Italy.

The Benson Agriculture and Food Institute of Utah’s Brigham Young University is experimenting with quinoa in the Mexican highlands near Puebla. Luis Espinoza, a Chilean researcher at the institute, said that U.S. farmers are becoming increasingly interested in quinoa as an alternative crop.

“We have had quite a few telephone calls from people all the way from California to Nebraska, people who want to grow it,” Espinoza said by telephone.

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Duane Johnson, a quinoa expert at the agronomy department of Colorado State University, estimated that 2,500 acres of quinoa are being grown in Canada’s Saskatchewan and Alberta provinces and 200 acres in Washington state.

Johnson introduced quinoa to farmers in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, where a total of 1,200 acres are now planted with the grain.

He said the production is sold mostly as health food in the United States, Italy, France and Switzerland.


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