Quinoa: Alter Eco s Story

By Mathieu Senard and Edouard Rollet 

More than ten years ago, a group of friends banded together with a shared passion for economic and social justice in developing areas of the world, who were also passionate about food. Out of this shared interest, Alter Eco took shape. How could we translate a passion for sustainable economic development, and an interest in food, travel, and adventure, into a viable business model

This is the essence of Alter Eco – a values-based brand of specialty food products that brings delicious, exotic, high-quality and healthy ingredients from around the world to people here in the United States for their delight and enjoyment, while directly benefitting the small-scale farmers who grow these products.  The path of Alter Eco and its products, in effect, address many of the tough questions we face about the foods we eat today: Where does our food come from Who grows these products, and are these people treated fairly in return for their work How can we reduce environmental impact and ensure an ethical supply chain while also delivering a higher quality, more nutritional product to our customers

Alter Eco decided to address these issues directly by launching a brand that is 100% Fair Trade, Organic and Carbon Neutral. We often say that we are on a quest for “perfect products”:  foods that are good for us to eat, good for the farmers to grow and non-harmful to the environment. The last piece of the puzzle to our quest is a biodegradable or home-compostable packaging material, which is coming up! The technology is on its way and Alter Eco wants to be one of the first companies to launch it into the marketplace.

One can see the results of our commitments firsthand in the exceptional taste of our products, and the stories they tell. As a company, Alter Eco is committed to delivering food products that capture distinct attributes of various regions around the world, products that reflect the diversity, traditions and cultures of the places where they are grown, such as:

Three types of ancient Quinoa whole grain grown on the high plains of the Bolivian Altiplano—pearl, red, black, as well as a mix of the three that we call Rainbow.
Four heirloom Jasmine rice varietals from Northern and Eastern Thailand—white, red, coral, and ruby rice.
Seven flavors of yummy dark chocolate bars made from Criollo cacao beans grown in the Bolivian Amazon, manufactured in Switzerland by a chocolatier with 100-years of experience.

Unrefined Mascobado cane sugar from the Negros Island in The Philippines, the most natural cane sugar process there is, preserving taste and nutrition.

At Alter Eco, we are fully committed to small-scale farmers and their families, and as such have developed an extensive auditing process for all of our growers to ensure fair wages, good working conditions and hours, and opportunities for economic growth and development. We are fully committed to Fair Trade as 100% of our products are certified by FLO standards (certified by Fair Trade USA in the US).  There has never been and never will be an Alter Eco product that is not fairly traded. We thrive by guaranteeing that growers have enough revenue to feed themselves and their families, send kids to school and believe in a stable and decent future. A fair price paid for their crop can help farmers achieve that. The additional fair trade premium paid directly to the co-operatives also helps these communities finance local community development projects.

We are also committed to healthy, good-for-you organic products that come from a healthy, vibrant diverse ecosystem. The transition to organic agriculture from intensive use of pesticides also has a very positive impact on farmers’ health. They used to dig themselves into debt in order to purchase pesticides that would in turn poison them. The transition to organic agriculture freed them from the tyranny of pesticides and improved both their own as well as their consumers’ health. A healthy farming community leads to healthy foods that create a better and happier world for all.

An example of how a fair trade crop can change the economic landscape of an entire region: the story of Quinoa, and how fair trade can ensure food sovereignty in local communities.

Quinoa (pronounce keen-wah) is known as the Supergrain of the Andes. 13,000 feet up on the arid, desolate Salar De Uyuni salt flat, traditional Quechua farmers tend to the coveted “quinoa real,” an indigenous plant cultivated only in this very spot. This pearl-shaped, nearly perfect nutrition source was so revered by the Incans that they called it “chisaya mama” or “mother grain.” We call it nutty, delicious and endlessly versatile.

The production of quinoa is a yearlong process: 8 to 9 months between sowing, in late August, and harvest, in early May. The process, mostly manual, is as follows:

August to October: Field preparation and sowing: Cleaning, clearing up, plowing, sowing one plant every 100 cm (40 inches) within rows, and 60 cm (24 inches) between rows.
October-November: Follow-up, the producers cover the shoots to avoid dehydration and set-up butterfly traps before the reproductive cycle of butterflies.
December: The producers manually weed the fields.

February: Producers may use a natural organic-approved insecticide to kill and deter “qakos,” one of the most devastating bugs. A clearing-up may also be performed at this time.

March-May: Harvest (when moisture content of the grains is approx. 80%) The use of sickles is increasing as a means of preventing soil contamination of the grains and other impurities.

April to May: Manual separation of grains, selection of grains for future planting, and drying to a moisture content of 20%.

10% of the harvest is kept by the producer for his personal consumption and to be used for the next sowing.

Several articles in the US media in the past couple of years stated that the rise in the price of quinoa suddenly made quinoa unaffordable to local populations, which was directly responsible for malnourishment in Bolivia. For several years now, we at Alter Eco have studied the impact of the increase in the price of quinoa on local populations, specifically in regard to malnourishment. At the farmer level—the poorest among the poor in Bolivia—what we have found, with our cooperative partners, is actually the opposite of what these articles say.

Each year, fair trade farmers have been able to set aside quantities of quinoa in order to feed themselves and their families, and they are able to do so precisely because the price of quinoa is now high enough. Higher revenues allow them to diversify their eating regimen and also to keep personal stores of the precious grain. Higher prices, as well as fair trade premiums, also help improve their lifestyle in other ways—for example, by building schools, improving roads, buying cattle, etc.

The rising profile and price of quinoa on the world market is a unique opportunity for one of the poorest regions in the world to transform itself. It is critical, however, that fair trade practices be respected among importers, distributors and retailers in developed countries, so that the farmers get a fair share of the higher price of quinoa on the shelf. As for the rest of Bolivia, in the cities outside of quinoa growing areas, it is true that quinoa has today become quite expensive for local populations to purchase. Yet, the rise in the price of agricultural commodities is a global phenomenon that benefits farmers and causes hardship for the landless urban poor, not just for quinoa. And, as with other commodities, increasing demand for quinoa in the West makes quinoa farming more attractive to farmers, particularly if trade is on fair terms, and will balance demand and supply.   
Alter Eco’s corporate mission and raison d’etre is to help support the disenfranchised of the global economy. We stand side by side with the poorest farmers in the world, to help them get a fair price for what they produce in order to improve their lives. What is happening in Bolivia today is a fantastic opportunity to help these communities, as long as fair trade standards are guaranteed. At this point in time, we can safely assure Alter Eco consumers that the purchase of our fair trade quinoa has a very positive impact on the people that currently need it the most.


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