A designation of origin to save Bolivian quinoa?

By Maurice Tschopp.

In 2017, quinoa does not pay as much as it used to. After having steadily increased during two decades, and even reaching an all-time peak in 2013[1], prices of quinoa began to fall in the last three years. A previous article on this blog already discussed the repercussions of this decrease for quinoa producers (see the article by Gabriela Ruesgas [ https://fateproject.wordpress.com/2016/05/30/the-quinoa-producing-communities-and-the-decline-of-the-boom/ ].

Several producers blame the recent buzz around quinoa, and especially the international year of quinoa in 2013. While the international year created a lot of awareness around the nutritional properties of quinoa, it contributed to expanding quinoa production in all regions of the globe. At least 95 countries now produce quinoa, 20 of which harvested quinoa for the first time in 2015 (see Bazile et al. 2016: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4860459/ )

Quinoa production is therefore increasing worldwide. Yet, Peru still remains Bolivia’s fiercest competitor. Both countries are leaders in quinoa production (over 80% of world production together), but Peru overthrew Bolivia as the number one quinoa producing country in 2014 (see figure 1).

production2000-2014

Production and areas harvested of quinoa in Bolivia and Peru (2000-2014)

Peru has several advantages over Bolivia. General climatic conditions are more favourable than the dry and cold southern Altiplano, where quinoa is traditionally cultivated in Bolivia. Quinoa yields are hence higher in Peru, and in some regions quinoa can be harvested twice a year, an unimaginable reality for Bolivian farmers.

As Bolivian farmers cannot compete with Peruvian production costs or volumes, they developed a new strategy: to establish a geographical indication (GI) for quinoa produced in the wild but spectacular southern Altiplano.

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Quinoa in traditional baskets, @M.Tschopp

The 4000 metres above sea level “terroir”

This strategy already has been applied to numerous traditional products associated with specific geographical area in Europe and in the rest of the World. When it comes to quinoa, Bolivia has several interesting arguments to put in the balance.

  • First the idyllic location of quinoa fields, located in the surroundings of the Salar de Uyuni, a geological wonder and a growing tourist hub, which attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.
  • The other “comparative advantage” of the quinoa produced in the southern Altiplano is its quality of the local variety: the “Quinua Real”. This variety is known to have bigger grains and better taste than other varieties of quinoa. Bolivian quinoa farmers also stress that the “Quinua real” has better nutritional properties than its Peruvian counterparts do.

The development of this geographical indication revolves around these two arguments: the geographical location and the quality of the Quinua Real. The process is yet quite complex, and it requires gathering a wide range of stakeholders, from the most important quinoa cooperatives, the Bolivian State as well as the private sector. The challenge is not only to define precise boundaries of the geographical region that can produce the “Quinua Real”, but also to define a set of rules of use, (reglamentó de uso) that have to be followed by all producers in the area. A Regulating Council (Consejo regulador) has been established in order to develop these rules. In addition, a trademark has also been developed and it has to be recognized by some of the major quinoa importing regions, including the European Union.

A target, the European Union

Geographical Indications (GIs), are quite common in the European Union, and there is a strong legal framework in place for their recognition. The European Union is therefore the biggest targeted market for this kind of labels. In Europe, hundreds of GIs exist for all kind of products such as Italian Cheese, Spanish Wine, Swiss dried Meat etc… A country like Switzerland alone[2],  has more than 30 local GI products registered by the federal Office for Agriculture. (link: https://www.blw.admin.ch/blw/fr/home/instrumente/kennzeichnung/ursprungsbezeichungen-und-geografische-angaben.html )

Yet the road is long. It can take years for the Consejo Regulador to comply with all administrative requirements of the European Union and to register a new geographical indication.  The procedures are also very complex, but it seems that the Bolivian regulatory council of the GI is well engaged in this process. The Designation of Origin was officially presented at the Biofach in Nurenberg in Germany (link: http://boliviarural.org/noticias/noticias-2017/5894-lanzamiento-de-la-denominacion-de-origen-de-la-quinua-real-del-altiplano-sur-de-bolivia-en-feria-biofach-de-nuremberg-alemania.html.

But while the Regulating Council is engaged in all these procedures on the international level, it also has to make sure that the label and regulations are accepted by Bolivian producers, cooperatives and private company.

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Representatives of the Bolivian State presenting the current state and advantages of the Designation of Origin in Uyuni in November 2016. @M.Tschopp

This is not an easy task. Different actors in the market (cooperatives, private sector) have often been in competition and often accuse each other of undercutting prices and quality of quinoa. Getting all this people to work on a common project is very challenging.

“We have come a long way “, recognizes Juan Carlos Choque, the President of the Regulating Council for the Designation of Origin. “At first, the private sectors and the cooperative could not sit at the same table… Now we are all working together”.

The Bolivian Quinoa can also find some inspiration with the Colombian Coffee, one of the first South American GI to be recognized in Europe.

[1]  Prices paid to the producers reached 14’000 USD per ton of quinoa during that year (source FAOSTAT).

[2]Switzerland is not member of the EU but yet with very similar legal framework)

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