Quinoa seems like the perfect grain. The little golden seed is gluten-free, low in calories, high in protein, tasty, and able to grow in arid climates. In recent years, it has gained popularity among health-conscious consumers as an alternative to meat and substitute for wheat. Most of the world’s quinoa is produced in the highlands of Bolivia and Peru, and spikes in the market have allowed farmers to transform their lives with new clothes, cars, and radically different diets. So, why hasn’t the rest of the world caught on to quinoa?
Due to high demand and low overall supply, quinoa has become very expensive for many restaurants to keep on the menu. Some have struck the grain from their ingredients list because it has become to costly, or simply because they cannot find enough to satisfy their customers. A majority of the grain is grown in South America, with only select enthusiasts cultivating it in places such as Colorado. The varieties tend to be less palatable than the Bolivian and Peruvian strains as well as being difficult to raise. Of the 200 million pounds produced every year, the United States is only accountable for less than ten percent.
To truly take off, quinoa would need some investment from large, well-funded agribusinesses who have not shown any interest in developing the crop. To gain some attention, it may be that quinoa would have to prove that it can be more than just a trend that caters to high-end consumers, and something that could have universal appeal. Development of different strains would require time, money, and new infrastructure. The challenge seems to be in making quinoa attractive enough to large companies. In 2007, the US imported 7.3 million pounds of quinoa, and prices tripled between 2006 and 2011. Were the US to get into cultivation, there would be the potential for a substantial profit. Although cool, arid climates make it somewhat challenging to grow in most of the country, new varieties might be able to overcome the biological hurdle.
As the big farming companies focus on developing more resistant lines of corn, soybeans, and wheat, the rest of the world is beginning to consider quinoa. What remains to be seen is whether or not the industry deems the little seed worthy enough of focus in order to see it blossom into a fully fledged staple. In the meantime, quinoa stands as a dietary curiosity.