Incas called quinoa Chisiya mama (in Quechua), “the mother of grains.” Incas revered quinoa as a sacred food and plant. For them it was as valuable as “gold.”
The origins of this plant date back to thousands of years ago. Pre-Inca civilizations are likely to have cultivated this pseudo-cereal, which was, like potatoes, a staple food. During the Empire, every year, the Incas performed a special ceremony to plant the first quinoa seeds of the season. Priests carried golden vessels filled with quinoa, which they offered to Inti the Sun God.
It is still uncertain, when the systematic cultivation of quinoa started. It probably was between 7,000 and 5,000 years ago in the area surrounding Lake Titicaca (on the border between Bolivia and Peru). From there, it spread across the Andean region.
During the Spanish domination, other cereal cultivations imported from Europe replaced quinoa, “showing social prestige and contempt for Andean crops.”
The Andean people called quinoa “The gold of the Incas” or “the Mother of all seeds.” It soon turned into “la comida de los indios,” the food for the natives. Quinoa cultivation was relegated to isolated areas, and spread only among small indigenous communities.
Over the centuries, the generations passed on the use of quinoa. The strongest varieties were isolated and reproduced, allowing for the great diversity of the current product, which also changes depending on its applications.
Quinoa cultivation was preserved thanks to the natives’ skills, to their community work, and their ancestral knowledge.
The United Nations recognized the importance of quinoa. It declared 2013 “The International Year of Quinoa” with the slogan “A future sown thousands of years ago.” The UN recognition underlines the contribution this extraordinary food can give to global food security, in favour of poverty reduction.
According to the United Nations, “The indigenous peoples of the Andes have maintained, controlled, protected, and preserved quinoa as food for present and future generations, thanks to their traditional knowledge and living practices which are in harmony with nature and Mother Earth.”
“Unlike other plants – according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) – quinoa is characterized by a strong link with the indigenous people who have cultivated it for thousands of years and who play the ‘courageous’ role of ‘custodians’ of quinoa for present and future generations.”
The government of Bolivia proposed the International Year of Quinoa, with the support of the United Nations, Argentina, Azerbaijan, Ecuador, Georgia, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay. The Bolivian President, Evo Morales, who deserves credit for firmly believing in this project, considers quinoa an “ancestral gift from the Andean people.”
Low production costs
Quinoa is a grain-like crop. What distinguishes this ancient Andean plant is its high protein value (about 37% of its proteins are made up of essential amino acids), high amounts of unsaturated fatty acids (its oil contains more than 50% of Omega 6, and more than 26% of Omega 9), vitamins, and minerals. Quinoa is also gluten-free, so it can be an alternative for coeliacs.
Because of these important characteristics, NASA gave it to its astronauts on space trips.
It is easily cultivated, adapting to any atmospheric condition and tolerating temperatures from -4° to +38° Celsius. Quinoa can grow in coastal regions and at heights of over 3,000 m in the Andes.
Its high nutritional value, its genetic diversity, its adaptability and low production costs, made FAO consider quinoa a “strategic cultivation to contribute to food security and food sovereignty.” This is true mainly in those places where populations do not have consistent access to other protein sources, or where nutrition is inadequate and insufficient. Fifty per cent of world supply comes from Bolivia (more than 40%), Peru, Ecuador, and Chile. The United States ranks first among importing countries.