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Quinoa may be the new corn. All right, that's probably a major overstatement. But over the past decade or so, millions of North Americans and Europeans have started eating the seeds of this plant. It's grown by small farmers in South America in the Andes. Now, farmers around the world are trying to get into the business. That leaves some Andean farmers wondering: What happens to us?
Here's NPR's Dan Charles.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: When European explorers and settlers arrived in the Americas, they liked some of the food they found here: corn, potatoes. They took those plants around the world. But they really had no use for quinoa, a relative of tumbleweed and spinach. It comes in all kinds of colors and grows a big lumpy head filled with thousands of tiny seeds.
In the Andes, though, people kept growing this plant. And now, it's a profitable export crop. In trendy restaurants of North American and Europe, you'll find quinoa salads, quinoa chili. It's super nutritious, also exotic.
Farmers all over the world are now starting to wonder, how do we climb onto this quinoa bandwagon? Many of them gathered this week for a kind of quinoa summit at Washington State University. There were also scientists like Jeff Maughan from Brigham Young University in Utah, who's been studying quinoa genetics.
JEFF MAUGHAN: There are people from many, many different countries representing all the continents.
CHARLES: They're trying to grow quinoa in the Pacific Northwest, in Denmark and France, in Pakistan and the African country of Malawi. Some had stories of success. There were also tales of failure. Many varieties of quinoa are only happy in the cool, dry highlands of the Andes. If it's too hot, many won't produce a harvest. Too much rain is bad too.
MAUGHAN: We're spending a lot of time just testing different varieties that have come out of the Andean countries to see if any of those will, one, survive here and, two, produce the seeds that we'd like to eat.
CHARLES: Researchers also are figuring out how to mass-produce this crop and harvest it with machines.
Kevin Murphy, the plant breeder at Washington State who organized this conference, says those practical problems can be solved. He's more worried about something else: fairness. In four or five years, quinoa will not be just a crop from the Andes anymore, he says. But what about the people of the Andes, the farmers whose ancestors kept quinoa alive through the centuries, who selected all these different varieties, what will happen to them?
KEVIN MURPHY: For me, that's the most pressing question, the most urgent question.
CHARLES: Murphy invited some Bolivian farmers to this quinoa summit and five of them came. They'd never been outside Bolivia before. Pablo Laguna was also there. He's an anthropologist - half-Bolivian, half-French - who's been working among traditional quinoa farmers, and he's become a sort of bridge between them and the outside world.
Laguna says when these farmers see all these other people trying to grow their crop, they have a couple of reactions.
PABLO LAGUNA: In one hand, they are proud of being descendents of people that selected those plants.
CHARLES: They're proud, also pragmatic, Laguna says. They know they can't stop this international appetite for quinoa. They don't even want to. It's been profitable for them. But they also feel that if they're providing this plant for competitors to grow in the U.S. or Australia, they should see some benefits. That's why, for now, the government of Bolivia is trying to keep control over many quinoa varieties. They won't give samples, for instance, to plant breeders in the U.S. like Kevin Murphy at Washington State University.
MURPHY: For some of the researchers, that was a little bit of a bitter pill to swallow because they, you know, they believe in free access to seeds and to crops.
CHARLES: But Murphy does not have a problem with it. Bolivia is making an important point, he says: We all know quinoa is going global.
MURPHY: So we want to do it right. And doing it right means doing it with the input of the Bolivian farmers right from the beginning and, you know, realizing that this is their seed, this is their sacred plant.
CHARLES: And we need to figure out a way to pay them for it, he says. At the conference, there was talk about creating a special brand for Andean quinoa like Bordeaux wine. It would be top-quality quinoa and consumers would pay extra for quinoa from the land and the communities that have grown it for thousands of years.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
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