The Quinoa Quarrel

Who owns the world’s greatest superfood?

This story won a 2015 James Beard Foundation Award for excellent writing in "Food Politics, Policy, and the Environment."
This story won a 2015 James Beard Foundation Award for excellence in writing in “Food Politics, Policy, and the Environment.”

At the sixty-sixth session of the United Nations, the General Assembly named 2013 the International Year of Quinoa. When I tell people that, they often laugh— most Americans know quinoa as the latest in a string of superfoods that cycle through the shelves and bulk bins of their local high-end grocery. But this grainlike seed is not another blue-green algae or pomegranate juice. Indeed, in the context of a looming global crisis, the darling of the Whole Foods set may be a godsend.

As the earth’s population approaches 9 billion, the Malthusian prediction that humans will outgrow our ability to feed ourselves seems increasingly plausible. Meanwhile, agriculture faces a slew of environmental challenges: erosion, desertification, salinization, water scarcity, and, of course, climate change.

Quinoa might be a big part of the solution. It provides significant amounts of calcium, iron, fiber, essential fatty acids, and vitamin E, and is (unlike any other plant food in the world) a complete protein, with adequate stores of all nine of the amino acids that the body can’t synthesize itself. More to the point, it is remarkably resilient. It thrives in soil saturated with salt. It tolerates cold and drought. Sven-Erik Jacobsen, a Danish agronomist who has studied the plant for more than twenty years, put it this way: “If you ask for one crop that can save the world and address climate change, nutrition, all these things—the answer is quinoa. There’s no doubt about it.”

Except for one problem. Chenopodium quinoa is native to South America’s Andean Plateau, better known as the Altiplano. The region stretches from Peru to Argentina but is mostly within Bolivia, nearly all of it above 12,000 feet. It’s a lean environment. The soil is composed of ash and igneous rock, and is hardened by frost roughly half the year. Precipitation is scanty—mostly on par with North America’s Sonoran Desert. Quinoa’s uncanny resilience arises from this very harshness, but it comes at a cost: the plant doesn’t automatically flourish in other conditions, even those that might seem more hospitable. To grow outside the Altiplano, it must be adapted.

This should be a manageable task for plant breeders. Potatoes, brought down from the Andes by the conquistadors, have been bred to grow on six continents. Quinoa, by contrast, remains essentially the same plant it was when Francisco Pizarro vanquished the Inca. But that could soon change. American geneticists produced a partial map of the quinoa genome in 2012, and anticipate a complete map by 2015. They have also identified nearly a thousand molecular markers, which allow breeders to screen plants for desired genes, and could be used to breed high-caliber modern varieties.

However, the germplasm—meaning the seeds that are the necessary raw material for the breeding process—is not free for the taking, the way potatoes were when the Spanish showed up. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a handful of governments around the world hold small, freely shared collections, most varities of quinoa are off-limits. Who is to blame? It’s not the usual suspect— some multinational corporation with a full portfolio of patents and evil intentions. This time, the germplasm is being withheld by the Andean nations themselves.

Two of these nations—Bolivia and Ecuador—are among the most impoverished in the Western Hemisphere, which leads to an uncomfortable stand-off: the poor of the Andes pitted against the poor of the world. When I discussed this conflict with Salomón Salcedo, a senior policy officer at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, he alternated gingerly between the two sides of the issue. Ultimately, he opted for the global view: “When we’re talking about people who die every day because they don’t have enough to eat, then I think that sharing is a must.”

For many who see it this way, Bolivia is an object of special contempt. Its gene banks contain far more quinoa varieties than any other country’s, yet the Bolivians are dead set against sharing them. This is not only popular sentiment but also official policy: the indigenous-dominated government of President Evo Morales has declared a fierce commitment to nationalizing Bolivia’s resources. The country’s prohibition on sharing germplasm began two decades ago, long before Morales came to power, but it was reinforced in the 2009 constitution written by his Movement for Socialism–Political Instrument for the Sovereignty of the Peoples (MAS-IPSP) party, and again in subsequent legislation.

Within Bolivia, the topic is a hornet’s nest. If you ever want to torpedo a conversation with one of the country’s agricultural scientists, just mention la propiedad intellectual—intellectual-property rights. The government is equally skittish, its officials evasive and prone to take shelter behind bits of harmless boilerplate. That’s because the issue goes much deeper than mere agricultural policy, especially for Bolivia’s quinoa farmers and indigenous majority. For them, it’s about preserving the country’s identity and self-reliance. As one farmer explained to me, his machete hanging from his shoulder like a rifle, “Esto es sobre la o soberanía alimentaria.” This is about food sovereignty.

On Easter Sunday in the southern Altiplano village of Jirira, the church is silent. I suspect it has been that way for a while—its ornaments have long since been stolen, and the gate to the front yard is gone. We pass it in the midst of a different sort of pilgrimage, driving along the rocky road that leads out of town and up the side of a volcano called Thunupa.

The view from the mountain road overlooks what appears to be a field of ice, a vast plane of white that stretches to the horizon. In fact, it is salt—slushy near the edges, but otherwise solid and up to thirty feet thick. This is the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt pan. Combine it with the Salar de Coipasa, on the other side of the volcano, and you have an area bigger than the state of Delaware.

Very little grows here. Yet it is the home of quinoa real—“royal quinoa”— whose seeds are the world market’s gold standard. Looking down as we climb, I see every bit of land between the salt pan and the hills is covered with quinoa, like a red-and-yellow skirt at the volcano’s feet.

Yesterday I met a farmer who was harvesting his crop there. He walked each row with his son-in-law and a hired man, one on either side of him. These helpers would gather the leaves of each quinoa plant in their hands to reveal its thick stalk, which the farmer would then slash with a machete. His daughter followed them, stacking the cuttings in piles. In a section already harvested, his grandson lay on a blanket, playing with the family dog.

The farmer agreed to speak with me about the germplasm controversy, but he insisted that our formal conversation take place on the rim of the volcano. And so on Easter Sunday, we are driving and hiking nearly 3,000 vertical feet to the appointed spot, marked by a series of cairns that stand as tall as humans.

The final ascent is up the front of a short cliff. As I pull myself onto a flat space between two cairns, my mouth drops. Since arriving in the southern Altiplano, I have seen Thunupa only as a landmark from the airplane, or as a backdrop for photographing quinoa fields. Here the view consists of the volcano and nothing else, and it looks as if its heart has split open. The center is collapsed into a deep caldera, and on three sides rise high walls that seem to be made of sand, sliding back into the cauldron in striations of red, white, gray, pink, orange.

German “Thunupa” Nina of Jirira is a leader in the fight to ensure that the quinoa boom benefits native Alteños like him rather than corporations or foreign growers.
Germán “Thunupa” Nina of Jirira is a leader in the fight to ensure that the quinoa boom benefits native farmers like him rather than corporations or foreign growers.

Our meeting place is an eight-foot-wide ledge whose far side drops almost straight down into the volcano. Sitting on a boulder is the farmer, Germán Nina. He is indigenous Aymara and in recent years has served in Bolivia’s senate. He is tall and commanding, with a long nose, dark eyes, and thick black hair. Yesterday he was in field clothes, sweating as he harvested and chewing coca to ease the labor. Today his blue shirt is tucked in precisely and he has traded his work hat for one with no dirt on the brim. His hands rest on his knees, facing up, as if in a loose attitude of prayer.

Thunupa,” he says, “es el principio de la vida”—the beginning of life. The pillars of rock are sacred monuments; at our feet are the remains of a ceremonial fire. This volcano is not just a volcano, it is a god.

According to Aymara legend, it was Thunupa who gave the Andean people quinoa. Long ago, when a drought caused hunger throughout the region, the god sent to earth a beautiful emissary named Nustra Juira. She traveled the Altiplano by foot, from Lake Titicaca to the salt pans in the south. When at last she reached Thunupa and ascended back into the sky, along the path she had walked grew a nutritious new crop that could withstand drought and cold.

Sitting here, framed by the volcano, Nina tells us his name is not really Germán—it is Thunupa. He explains that although his Aymara parents didn’t believe in la religión, they brought him to church for baptism. When the priest asked what name the child would have, they said Thunupa. “Out with your scary Indian names,” the priest replied, and ejected them from the church. They tried repeatedly to persuade him, but in the end they told the priest to use whatever name he wanted—the boy could change it when he was grown.

Nina is sufficiently self-assured that I suspect he wouldn’t object to my drawing a parallel between him and his divine namesake. Like Thunupa, he has helped make quinoa flourish on the Altiplano. Beginning in the 1980s, after drought devastated Jirira and other rural communities, he devoted himself to creating an international market for the crop. To keep that market working in favor of farmers rather than exporters, he joined in founding the first and still most influential quinoa-growers’ co-op in the country, Asociación Nacional de Productores de Quinua (ANAPQUI).

Because of efforts like these, quinoa could become the Altiplano’s first significant cash crop ever. The region’s rural villages had long been emptying out, for all the familiar reasons: lack of opportunity, meager incomes, and, increasingly, environmental challenges. Quinoa now allows farmers to remain in those villages; it has even enabled some emigrants to return. Asking these people to share their germplasm so the rest of the world can get in on the boom meets understandable resistance. Bolivia’s largest quinoa farmers are still small by the standards of industrial agriculture. Were the United States or Brazil to cultivate the crop on a large scale, Altiplano farmers would almost certainly lose their newfound livelihood.

Jirira lies on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest saltpan. Because quinoa tolerates saline soil, it can grow right up to the slushy edge of the salar.
Jirira lies on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest saltpan. Because quinoa tolerates saline soil, it can grow right up to the slushy edge of the salar.

Tanya Kerssen, research coordinator at the Oakland-based nonprofit Food First, points to an earlier cautionary tale, that of the noble Andean farmer who gave mankind the potato. “Now the world can benefit from this amazing thing, right? But at same time, what’s happening to Bolivian potato farmers? They have cheap industrial potatoes dumped into their market, so they can’t compete. They can’t make a living. They have to work in mines or migrate to cities. ”

Quinoa has had a different history. Because of the seed’s nutritional and spiritual importance to the people of the Andes, the Spanish banned it as a means of subjugation. For centuries after Pizarro swept through, quinoa was denigrated as “Indian food,” and in recent decades, even many indigenous people ceased eating it. Yet for Nina and those like him, the plant remains an integral part of their identity, their livelihood—indeed, their relationship to the world. If the inhabitants of the Altiplano are going to share their miracle food, it will be on their own terms.

As my plane approaches Salt Lake City, I’m struck by how the landscape of the Great Basin evokes the Altiplano. There are golf courses and subdivisions to be blurred out, but in late spring the high, flat plain is familiarly dry and harsh, the peaks of the Wasatch Range dramatically accented with snow. From the air, the lake recalls the Salar de Uyuni, as if the seeming ice of that place had melted into dark water.

If you follow the mountains south you’ll see a peak decorated with a Y nearly 400 feet tall. It’s the logo of Brigham Young University, which lies directly west, in Provo. There, in a multimillion-dollar greenhouse complex, a geneticist named Rick Jellen is growing an assortment of weedy-looking plants—quinoa’s wild relatives. They include a Chenopodium desiccatum from the Nevada desert, as well as a C. berlandieri that Jellen found growing in a saltwater estuary next to a bait shop on Texas’s Galveston Bay. These plants are part of a project to map quinoa’s biological ancestry. So far Jellen has traced the plant back to C. berlandieri, which originated not in South America but in the Missouri and Mississippi River Valleys. It’s represented here by a leggy specimen grown from seeds found near the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

There are more than a hundred species of Chenopodium around the world. Some are common weeds and some are domesticated food plants. Jellen’s theory is that migrating birds from North America gradually spread the offspring of C. berlandieri into Central America, then South America. Along the way, people bred the plant in the most basic manner: selecting and replanting the fittest specimens. Some offshoot eventually made it to the foothills of the Andes, where people began selecting for larger-seeded variants. In time, this process produced the miracle of C. quinoa.

The more precisely Jellen can pin down the plant’s lineage, the greater success he will have in hybridizing these wild relatives with domesticated quinoa. The idea is to import useful qualities from the wild varieties, such as heat tolerance and pest resistance. Of course, seeds from Bolivia and other Andean nations would offer a more easily accessible source of genetic diversity—but they’re not available. So it’s a slow, messy business, full of trial and error. In one corner of the greenhouse grows a hybrid of an Ecuadorian quinoa called Ingapirca with a wild C. berlandieri from Maine. After three generations, the offspring still have a spindly, almost feral look, and a good many are sterile.

Jellen himself is tall and fit. He speaks slowly, clearly, and (thanks to his years as a teacher) a few decibels louder than others in the room. He came to plant breeding by a circuitous path. Raised by a single father in late-1970s southern California, he grew up in the era of sex, drugs, and Led Zeppelin. As an adolescent, however, he began reading the Bible, and at fifteen he joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I’ve always known that there was something for me to do in this life,” he tells me. “From the time I was pretty young, I just felt that I had a calling.”

In the early 1980s, he served his mission in some of the most destitute parts of Peru. Returning to Utah, he decided to help the world’s poor through agricultural development. Jellen got a doctorate in plant breeding and shortly thereafter began his career at BYU, where he teaches biology, genetics, and the Book of Mormon.

For more than twenty years, he and his colleagues at BYU have partnered with Bolivian breeders to bring modern genetics to quinoa. It was their collaboration that mapped the genome and found the nearly 1,000 genetic markers.

When the project began, Jellen and his colleagues wanted simply to increase quinoa production and consumption within the Andes. But the more they have learned about the crop’s incredible potential, the more they have seen that potential in global terms. And so while Jellen can understand the Bolivian government’s genetic protectionism, he has grown increasingly frustrated with the limitations it imposes. Must the whole world “start paying the Iranians a premium for every bushel of wheat,” he asks, “because their Iranian ancestors were the ones that domesticated it?”

Jellen works on the quinoa project with his brother-in-law and fellow geneticist Jeff Maughan. Both are somewhere around fifty; Maughan is a touch shorter and a lot scrappier. Before coming to BYU, he was a mid-level director at Monsanto.

The day before BYU commencement last spring, the three of us met for lunch at a local chain restaurant offering bottomless sodas and twelve kinds of cheesesteak, available in regular or large. Again and again, our conversation returned to how the international food system is in trouble.

“We’re finally getting to the point where the Malthusian predictions are coming true,” Maughan said. “In 2050, if we’re really going to feed all the people, we’ll need three times as much arable land.”

Both men conceded that quinoa could neither solve these problems single-handedly nor replace such staples as corn and wheat. Still, because it can be grown on marginal lands, it could contribute substantially to the global sum of food production. And there was already enormous interest in the crop. General Mills had repeatedly approached the BYU team with the idea of developing a quinoa breakfast cereal. Jellen pictured quinoa granola bars “in every Walmart in America.” But there was no way to meet this demand as long as the Andean nations refused to facilitate production outside their borders while lacking the infrastructure to supply additional demand themselves.

“It’s painful for me to think, Oh, this could be so much more,” Maughan said. “If there was just a little bit more cooperation . . . ”

In the meantime, the BYU team is sharing its resources and helping quinoa to flourish in countries with large stretches of marginal land. In parts of Morocco, for example, farmers have been facing drought since the 1980s. This has made it impossible to grow legumes, which were traditionally planted in rotation with wheat. Ouafae Benlhabib, a Moroccan plant breeder at the Institut Agronomique et Vétérinaire Hassan II, in Rabat, began experimenting with quinoa as an alternative, and has been working with Jellen’s group since 2000. After more than a decade of breeding, she has finally adapted the plant well enough to be able to provide farmers with seed later this year.

Jellen is excited about that. He’s also nervous. There are few pests in the Altiplano, because of the elevation and extreme climate. But this means that Benlhabib’s plants will have few defenses against the insects and diseases that thrive at lower altitudes. “Quinoa has been in a nursery kind of environment,” he explains. “Now it’s about to go out into the urban jungle, so to speak. It’s about to land in Times Square, and it’s going to have to fend for itself.”

Harvested quinoa at the PROINPA Foundation’s research station in the Northern Altiplano town Viacha. This Bolivian organization works to conserve and improve indigenous Andean crops.
Harvested quinoa at the PROINPA Foundation’s research station in the Northern Altiplano town Viacha. This Bolivian organization works to conserve and improve indigenous Andean crops.

Normally, breeders respond to pests by introducing new genes that confer resistance. But this process requires a tremendous amount of genetic diversity. “To think we can take a couple of Chilean quinoa strains and grow them in Iowa—it just doesn’t work that way,” Jellen tells me. “There’s always a disease right around the corner, and the big game in plant breeding is to be one step ahead of that.” Jellen predicts that Benlhabib’s variant will contend successfully with pests for five or ten years, just long enough for people to start relying on it. Then, Jellen says, “it gets clobbered.”

The same story is taking place throughout the developing world. Since 2000, the USDA has dispensed its limited germplasm to researchers in Bulgaria, China, India, Lithuania, Mexico, Poland, Slovakia, South Korea, Thailand, Turkey, and Uganda, among others. Any quinoa grown on a wide scale by these nations will face the same problem as Benlhabib’s, which is why Jellen favors the “free and fair” exchange of germplasm. He will gladly share his genetic material with any interested parties—Americans, Moroccans, Bolivians. “I’d give that seed to Monsanto if they wanted to use it.”

For decades, Bolivia did share its quinoa germplasm. Most of the USDA’s current collection originated there. One researcher from Washington State University who brought back quinoa in the early 1990s recently quipped that the obstacle then was not the Bolivian government letting it out but U.S. Customs letting it in.

Then, on April 19, 1994, came U.S. patent #5,304,718. To understand its significance, we’ll need a one-paragraph lesson in quinoa reproduction. To make a hybrid, one plant is used to fertilize another. In the case of corn, which naturally cross-pollinates with its neighbors, this is easy. But where corn is promiscuous, quinoa is practically abstinent, what plant breeders call a “selfer”: the female part of the plant is fertilized almost exclusively by the male part of the same plant. In order for the two plants to be mated, then, the “female” must first be emasculated by the removal of its male reproductive organs. Because quinoa flowers are tiny and numerous, this is extremely difficult work.

In 1989, Sarah Ward and Duane Johnson, researchers at Colorado State University, identified a strain of quinoa plants whose cytoplasm—the gelatinous substance that fills a cell and supports its internal structures—had mutated, leading to male sterility. This meant they could be fertilized by other plants with relative ease. It was potentially a valuable tool in making hybrid quinoa, so the university patented it, listing Ward and Johnson as the investors.

Farmers in Bolivia were furious. The researchers had found the cytoplasm in plants they were growing in Colorado, but their seed had originated on the Altiplano. Ward and Johnson contended that the cytoplasm had arisen only after the plant was grown in Colorado and crossbred with a wild relative, making it distinct from the Bolivian original.

Germán Nina, then secretary general of ANAPQUI, implored the researchers to withdraw their patent. In an open letter, he and other ANAPQUI officials asked “all the countries of the world not to recognize this patent because the male sterile plant, the knowledge and maintenance of its genetic diversity, is the property of the indigenous peoples of the Andes.” Read: quinoa belongs to us.

ANAPQUI formed a delegation of Bolivian farmers, including Nina himself, who traveled to the United States to make their case in person. In the heated debate that ensued, John Daly, a former director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, tried to frame the argument in strictly economic rather than ethical terms. If the cytoplasm identified by Ward and Johnson allowed the efficient creation of hybrids, wouldn’t that serve as an incentive for seed companies to invest in improving quinoa? And wouldn’t the primary beneficiaries of that investment be the quinoa farmers themselves?

This thinking reflects the modern mind-set of American plant breeding. Until the 1980s, improving crops was a mostly public endeavor; in the United States, it was underwritten by tax-payers. But as public involvement with agriculture waned and intellectual-property rights began to generate much greater profits for seed companies, plant breeding became largely privatized. Today it is ownership, in the form of patents and licensing agreements, that makes the wheels of progress turn.

BYU, it should be noted, has no economic interest in quinoa. When Jellen collects a wild plant that might be useful, he brings it to the USDA so that it can be shared. His primary motivation is the Mormon church’s humanitarian mission (along with his own scientific curiosity). Yet neither he nor Maughan would object if their work led to a patent. They see intellectual-property rights as reasonable arrangements that allow those in the plant-breeding industry to recoup the often enormous sums they invest in research and development.

Indeed, because they continually struggle to fund their work in an industry dominated by corn, soy, and wheat, Jellen and Maughan wish that commercial agricultural interests were more involved in quinoa. General Mills has declined to support the crop’s development until there’s sufficient supply for a cereal line. Maughan has approached his former employers at Monsanto, making personal appeals for research support, but they are not interested. Even with its star on the rise, quinoa is still too small to be a good investment.

But if quinoa becomes a significant global crop, this could change. Its benefits might extend to other areas as well. Jellen and Maughan believe that quinoa could be a donor of valuable transgenes to the commodity crops that are the agricultural industry’s bread and butter. For instance, they have identified crucial genes that make possible quinoa’s extraordinary tolerance of salt. If that mechanism could be engineered into corn, it could revolutionize food production around the world. The same goes for quinoa’s ability to withstand drought. These innovations could be invaluable to global food security. They could also be stupendously profitable— and almost certainly patentable.

Colorado State quietly let its patent expire in 1998. When asked why, Ward stated that the cytoplasm had proved of no commercial value. Yet the patent remains a live issue, and an affront, in Bolivia. According to one researcher there, who asked to remain anonymous, it was the main reason state ownership of genetic resources was included in the country’s 2009 constitution.

No one I spoke with in Bolivia denied that poor communities around the world could benefit from quinoa. But once the germplasm is shared, there’s no way to ensure that it won’t be made into something that’s patented. For many indigenous Bolivians, that would be comparable to an atheist copyrighting parts of the Bible. What U.S. patent #5,304,718 did was impose a new sense of proprietorship: the Bolivians needed to own quinoa so that somebody else couldn’t.

When Alejandro Bonifacio was growing up on the Altiplano, a single snowfall would stay on the ground for days at a time. The glare was so blinding that at night he would weep in pain.

Now he is sixty, and when the snow does fall, it is gone by noon. Daily maximum temperatures are up. The rains come late and too hard, and they end early. In 2009, the Chacaltaya glacier just north of La Paz melted out of existence, six years earlier than originally predicted. On the Altiplano, climate change has arrived.

This means the growing cycle for quinoa is skewed. When farmers go to plant, in September and October, the lack of snow means the ground is dry. Couple that with the absence of seasonal rain, and they can’t sow their crop on time—the seeds won’t germinate. When showers finally arrive, in December, farmers can finally put in a crop, but the delay means their plants won’t have matured sufficiently by the time killing frost returns in March.

This is one of the puzzles that Bonifacio, by many accounts the world’s leading authority on quinoa, is trying to solve. He works for Fundación para la Promoción e Investigación de Productos Andinos (PROINPA), a Bolivian NGO founded to study the Andean potato (papa andina) and now devoted to what its website calls the “sustainable use of genetic resources, food sovereignty, and security.” In practice, though, Bonifacio seems like an independent operator. He could likely be high up in the Morales government, but he appears to have no interest. At the mere mention of the terms most of his colleagues use to quantify farming—“inputs,” “outputs,” “production systems”—he flicks his wrist, as if to rid the air of such useless abstractions.

Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio, an indigenous Aymara and a world authority on quinoa, strums the charango and sings a love song to his home on the Altiplano. His native village is Lluqu, which in Aymara means “heart.”
Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio, an indigenous Aymara and a world authority on quinoa, strums the charango and sings a love song to his home on the Altiplano. His native village is Lluqu, which in Aymara means “heart.”

He is different, I suspect, because in many ways he is an Altiplano farmer himself. Bonifacio grew up herding llamas and raising quinoa in the village of Lluqu, just a few miles from Evo Morales’s hometown. He remembers the president from childhood—knows him still today—and for some time their lives ran roughly parallel. Both are Aymara. Both had four siblings die as children. Both left the Altiplano and cleared government-issued land to plant rice and coca in hopes of creating a richer life than their childhood homes could offer.

But while Morales’s life was shaped by the coca union’s revolutionary politics, Bonifacio took a different route. As a young man, he won a scholarship to attend the public university in Cochabamba, and later studied English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison on a World Bank fellowship. Next he began work on a master’s, which would later lead to a Ph.D. in genetics—at BYU.

Longing for home, Bonifacio tried making traditional chuño—potatoes dehydrated in the Altiplano’s cold night air—in his freezer. The office he was given in Provo felt suffocating, so he moved his desk into the university greenhouse, where he could be under the sun, surrounded by his experimental quinoa plants.

After writing his thesis in Bolivia, Bonifacio returned to BYU to defend it. The first portion of that process was open to the public, and more than eighty people showed up to hear him.

It was the first time any of them had seen Bonifacio in a tie, the knot sitting almost horizontally on the shelf of his barrel chest, over which he wore a colorful poncho and, on his head, an alpaca hat. To set the stage for his thesis presentation, he had recruited some fellow Bolivians who were studying llama genetics at BYU. They played flute while he strummed an Andean lute and sang songs in Spanish and Aymara. When they finished, Bonifacio put down his instrument, flipped on the projector, and began his PowerPoint: “Genetic Variation in Cultivated and Wild Chenopodium Species for Quinoa Breeding.”

Today, Bonifacio works for an NGO with international funders— often suspect in Bolivia—but continues to collaborate with farmers throughout the Altiplano. He upholds the nation’s germplasm restrictions but regularly publishes papers with the BYU team. Perhaps one reason he can juggle what might otherwise be explosive conflicts is that he discusses neither the dispute around quinoa nor anything else even mildly controversial. “I can do politics,” he tells me, “I just don’t have time.”

Instead, he explains, his calling is to continue the work of his “ancient parents,” who domesticated quinoa, potatoes, and the other food plants that made life on the Altiplano possible. To that end, Bonifacio is breeding varieties of quinoa that mature early, to accommodate the rains that now seem late but in time may become the norm. He is also trying to domesticate a wild type of perennial quinoa from southern Altiplano, which would make moot the issue of annual planting.

In all his work, Bonifacio avoids the preference for homogeneity that is standard practice among modern plant breeders. They choose a narrow genetic profile so the plants will grow predictably; Bonifacio chooses genetic diversity so the plants will be resilient in unpredictable circumstances.

When I first met him, I sensed that Bonifacio represented a solution to the quinoa quarrel, but for months I couldn’t pinpoint how. Because he wouldn’t talk politics, I couldn’t get him to tie his work to the dispute. At last I connected the dots myself. If genetic diversity is the key to breeding in an uncertain future, then the question of ownership is answered through a back door. Ownership works by restricting access, and restricting access inhibits genetic diversity. Who, then, should own a plant? By this calculation, no one.

Even state ownership, meant to protect a crop like quinoa from corporate predation, tends to work against the larger goal of promoting genetic diversity. Take Bolivia’s genetic-conservation program. In a shift mandated by the 2009 constitution, the government nationalized the quinoa gene bank, which had been overseen by PROINPA for more than ten years. Government supporters argue that a public entity is more likely to be a democratic custodian of those resources than is a private organization—especially one that accepts foreign funding. But researchers in Bolivia and around the world question the government’s ability to safe-guard the seeds.

A whiteboard reads NO DESORDENE POR FAVOR (“Don’t make a mess, please”) inside the PROINPA greenhouse, where Bonifacio and his staff breed improved varieties of quinoa.
A whiteboard reads NO DESORDENE POR FAVOR (“Don’t make a mess, please”) inside the PROINPA greenhouse, where Bonifacio and his staff breed improved varieties of quinoa.

These skeptics often cite an incident at the Patacamaya research station, which local farmers sacked and burned in 1998 in the name of rural land redistribution. In the process, they destroyed seed canisters containing Bolivia’s largest gene bank for quinoa—1,900 varieties, collected over decades. By a stroke of luck, Bonifacio was then running an experiment for which a duplicate of the collection had been parceled out to grow at two distant research stations. Otherwise, the gene bank would have been lost. (1)

Should this sort of thing happen again, there will be no duplicate collection in more competent hands. That would compromise the state’s sovereignty. When I asked one researcher whether the collection was now backed up at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway—the decidedly apolitical repository dubbed the Doomsday Vault—he shook his head. “Svalbard?” he said. “Not this government.”

The folly of genetic ownership was underscored for me by an unexpected messenger: Emigdio Ballon, a geneticist who like Bonifacio was born to an indigenous farming family on the southern Altiplano. He ran the quinoa program at Patacamaya before leaving Bolivia for the United States in the 1980s. Functioning as the Johnny Appleseed of the Andes, he brought with him more than 200 types of quinoa to share. Some specimens he gave to a professor at BYU, which is what inspired the program now run by Jellen and Maughan. Others he gave to Duane Johnson at Colorado State, including a variety called Apelawa— the very plant that eventually produced U.S. patent #5,304,718.

While Ballon abhors patents, he says that to this day he would share the same seed freely. “Quinoa doesn’t belong to the Bolivian government or to corporations,” he told me. “Any food, any seeds, they are very sacred—they are for serving humanity. And if you don’t have their diversity stored in other places, you are in trouble. Because we never know what’s coming tomorrow.”

These words sprang to mind that day at the cheesesteak joint in Provo when Jellen began talking about Argentina. He told me that researchers there were on track to grow quinoa on an industrial scale. “They have modern facilities, their scientists are very well- trained, and they do mechanized agriculture,” he said. “The Argentines are going to do it right.”

The potential threat this presents to Bolivia will not simply be competition for market share. Argentina includes a small piece of the Altiplano, lower in elevation than Bolivia’s larger portion but connected to it by valleys that have served as trade routes for centuries. The Argentine plants may become vectors, transmitting pests and diseases up the valleys to the southern Altiplano, into the heart of Bolivia’s quinoa industry. Without a breeding program that cooperates with other nations and, ironically, incorporates genetics from lower elevations, the damage could be crippling. Here is where the ethical argument for genetic diversity overlaps with self interest: if Bolivia will not relinquish its tight grip on its treasured germplasm, the nation’s quinoa industry may well end up a victim of its own isolation.

Jellen and others believe that Bolivia would benefit most if it actually led the world in making quinoa a global crop. The FAO’s master plan for the International Year of Quinoa included the opportunity to begin that process, with the construction of an international research station dedicated to developing and improving the plant. But as with any conversation about quinoa these days, that is easier said than done.

After three months, numerous phone calls, and countless emails, I was finally granted an interview with Bolivia’s vice minister of rural development and agriculture, Victor Hugo Vásquez. He comes from the same region as Bonifacio and Morales—in fact, he was a quinoa farmer before he entered politics and plans to become one again at the end of his term. Vásquez was pleasant enough, but as I had half-anticipated, he was reluctant to say anything about anything. Formal discussion of the bill to approve the international quinoa center was to begin that afternoon, and in the meantime he wouldn’t answer any questions about germplasm. “Once we have finished with our assembly,” he said, “I would be happy to give you a more in-depth interview.” Months later, I’m still waiting for his call. (2)

Last autumn, Bonifacio took me to see quinoa in the fields of Patacamaya. He knows the area well, having worked at the research station for a long time, until he was finally repelled by the politics that came to govern the place.

On the drive there, I asked if we could visit the research station. “I don’t think so,” he mumbled. When I asked why not, he reluctantly explained that the problem was not just me, the gringa in the passenger seat. Since the siege in 1998, nearly all the research station’s 2,500 acres have been unofficially appropriated by local farmers. Because Bonifacio was driving an official-looking truck, the farmers might think he and I were coming to take back the land. “It wouldn’t be good.”

Bonifacio is no more capable than I am of resolving this essential conflict: food sovereignty for his own people or food security for the world. I myself can reach only a sort of open verdict: that impossible choices like these will become more common as we enter the age of too many people and not enough food. As important as anything, I think, is that while those conflicts play out, every community needs a Bonifacio: one who flicks away abstractions and instead devotes his time to improving whatever crops are available, to keep the community fed. Yet among the tragedies of agriculture’s intellectual property era is that public-oriented plant breeders like him are dying off.

When at last we neared the turnoff for Patacamaya, we stayed in the truck and just drove by, slowly. Thick clouds blocked the sun, but still the fields glowed brilliant red, gold, and green: hundreds of acres of multicolored quinoa plants ready for harvest. Even from a distance, Bonifacio recognized them as varieties he had created when he worked there. When he releases a new variety of quinoa, he always gives it an Aymara name. We could see fields of Chucapaca, named after a nearby mountain, and Sayaña, which refers to a family’s private plot of land beside the community’s jointly owned property. A third variety he had christened Patacamaya, in honor of this place.

Still driving slowly, we crossed a river marking the boundary of the research station, after which Bonifacio pulled over by the side of the road. Looking back over the fields, he smiled. As a person he seems to bear the weight of the world, but then always errs on the side of buoyancy, of joy where he can find it.

“This makes me happy,” he said, gazing toward the rainbow fields, the small buildings of the research station now out of sight. “If farmers are using them, then I am happy.” And we drove on.


1. Bonifacio was shocked when he saw the Patacamaya station in flames on television — because of the destruction, but also because it meant he was in charge of the sole remaining copy of the gene bank. Soon he persuaded PROINPA to take custody, and this arrangement remained in force until the government nationalized the collection. The germplasm then moved from the PROINPA facility on the Altiplano to a state-run research station near Cochabamba, where, many fear, the more humid conditions will threaten the seeds’ long-term viability.
2. Last October, President Morales officially agreed to the creation of a research center in Bolivia — possibly on the northern side of Thunupa. Beyond that, nothing was finalized, nor did anybody agree to share their germplasm. When I asked the FAO’s Salomón Salcedo whether this represented real progress, he confined himself to saying, “Well, every step counts.”
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