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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And we go now to the wind-swept high altitude planes of Bolivia, known as the Altiplano. A food grown there has long been a staple in Bolivia, and is now increasingly popular in the U.S. It's called quinoa. It's high in protein and iron and its recent embrace abroad has pushed up the price of quinoa. In Bolivia it now sells for seven times what it did just a decade ago. Reporter Annie Murphy has more.

ANNIE MURPHY: The Bolivian Altiplano doesn't look like good farmland. It doesn't even look fertile.

Everything here is covered in bleached-out scrub and rocks. It's a really barren landscape. There are just a few llamas grazing and some whirls of dust.

But this seemingly hostile environment has ideal conditions for quinoa. It's about two miles above sea level, sandy and arid. The nearby Uyuni salt flat provides the right minerals. And dung from herds of grazing llamas and sheep mean good fertilizer.

Farmer Ernesto Choquetopa admires the soil. He says quinoa's recent popularity is changing farmers' lives.

MONTAGNE: (Foreign language spoken)

MURPHY: Before people didn't go to study, he says. They were born, they grew up, and that was it. They went on to herd sheep and llamas. Nothing more. Now people here, he says, we think about doing something with our lives. Thanks to his earnings from quinoa, Choquetopa's oldest daughter is now at university, studying medicine. And area farmers are increasingly turning to quinoa.

Dark green quinoa plants stretch before us in long, spindly rows. They have cone-shaped flowers, filled with edible seeds and look like a cross between broccoli and lupines. Once ready for harvest, they'll turn gold, deep red, even purple.

Choquetopa is part of an association of organic farmers, and his harvest will go to their processing plant.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE IN PROCESSING PLANT)

MURPHY: Here it's cleaned, rinsed, packaged, and bought by exporters like Fabricio Nunez, general manager of Andean Organics which sources quinoa to places like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Andean Naturals, not Andean Organics]

MONTAGNE: Once we promoted it and the product was on the shelves, it really started flying off the shelves. People are still looking more and more and more for quinoa and we're not able to supply it as fast as they want it.

MURPHY: But for all the health benefits and the way sales support farmers, popularity abroad is raising prices and gradually making it harder for Bolivians to buy quinoa. Nunez says a few years ago, 16 ounces of Andean Organics quinoa retailed for $2.00 at Trader Joe's. Now it's $4.00. And if prices keep climbing, quinoa could stop showing up in traditional soups and porridges in Bolivia.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR PASSING)

MURPHY: But, on this street corner in downtown La Paz, quinoa remains a popular breakfast. The delicate, curly seeds are served with hot milk and sugar, as a thick drink.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIQUID POURING)

MURPHY: And at about 30 cents for an eight-ounce cup, it's still cheap even by Bolivian standards. The Bolivian government is backing quinoa, supporting loans to small farmers, and promoting internal consumption by giving rations to pregnant women and young children. Doctor Margarita Flores works for Bolivia's Ministry of Health, and oversees the program.

D: (Foreign language spoken)

MURPHY: Flores says that a drop in production would worry the government, because Bolivia has obligations at home and abroad to produce quinoa and because it's part of the country's strategy to fight malnutrition.

The challenge is striking a balance. In spite of growing prosperity, many quinoa farmers are concerned about the environment. In Ernesto Choquetapo's community, people who use chemical fertilizers or uproot native grasses around quinoa fields are fined, or even punished.

MONTAGNE: (Foreign language spoken)

MURPHY: We want to keep the production sustainable, he says. We don't want to exploit every bit of it. This piece of earth has to support our kids and grandchildren, too.

For NPR News, I'm Annie Murphy in Bolivia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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