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On CODEX and a New Standard for Quinoa

SergioBy Sergio Nuñez de Arco

According to a recent article written by Joe Whitworth for foodqualitynews.com, “Bolivia and the US have been given the go ahead to work on an international standard for quinoa by the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC).”

It is very fitting that Codex would take a closer look at the current unregulated state of the quinoa market, which currently pins smallholder traditional growers against agro-industrial upstarts in what most consider an unfair fight to the bottom, leading smallholders back to poverty and promoting unsustainable cost-cutting.

Codex was co-created by the United Nations, who declared 2013 the “International Year of Quinoa”. Just a year later came the “International Year of Family Farming”- precisely what most quinoa growers are.

In 2014 prices for quinoa skyrocketed from USD 3,500 per metric ton to over USD 8,000 per metric ton, making it the most expensive grain (technically a gluten-free pseudo-grain) on the market. Agro-industrial companies started producing it in large quantities on irrigated lands, pulling 3-4,000 kilos per hectare. The traditional smallholder farmer depends on rainfall, works marginal lands, and produces 800 kilos per hectare on average, once every 2 years.

The food industry has raised concerns regarding the findings of pesticide residues beyond FDA limits (organic regulations allows 5% of the FDA limit on permitted pesticides). This not only for organic certified seed, but also for non-organic product. In 2014 the FDA tested and rejected multiple container loads of Peruvian quinoa due to hiProducer in fieldgh level of pesticide residues. Now multiple Peruvian companies are on the FDA watch list. This raised an alarm among importers, who started testing their quinoa, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in testing per year- an expense they did not have before 2014.

Today, quinoa prices have crashed to USD 3,000 per metric ton, due to over-production and the industrialization of quinoa: the sector is craving for regulation on what level of pesticides is allowable for the seed, and, what is specially important, what the fair price should be.

Codex’s initiative is both important and timely because it has the potential to set much needed standards for quality. It also would protect traditional smallholder growers so they can coexist with large private agro-industrial producers in the new era of commoditized quinoa.

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