Of Quinoa, Agricultural Science, and Social Change

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the Anthropologies #22 series.

Adam Gamwell rounds out the anthropologies #22 issue on food. Gamwell is a public anthropologist and PhD Candidate at Brandeis University working across food, design, science, and markets. His research is based in southern Peru on quinoa. He is also Creative Director and host for This Anthropological Life Podcast. Connect with Adam on academia.edu or linkedin.com –R.A.

Specters of the Dead

Aymara legend has it that some 5000 years ago there was a massive drought across the land, across what would become known as the Andean Altiplano spanning southern Peru and Bolivia. During this years-long drought harvests were lost, there was hunger, and many people and their animals died. Farmers, llamas and alpacas, travelers subsisting on the hospitality of locals all ran out of stores and eventually starved. There was virtually no food to be found, save for two plants that grew wild: quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), and its cousin cañihua (Chenopodium pallidicaule). These two species grow primarily in the Lake Titicaca basin and are remarkably resilient in the face of drought and frost, and can grow in salty, sandy, and acidic soils that kill most other plants. People quickly realized the nutritional qualities of these plants, and quinoa became famous for sustaining those who ate its seeds. The plant was named jiwra in Aymara which translates in Spanish to “levanta moribundos” or that which raises the dying (Canahua y Mujica, 2013).

This legend was recounted to me in perhaps an unusual place by an unexpected storyteller: a plant geneticist told the tale in-between explaining the orthomolecular and nutraceutical qualities of quinoa.

Agricultural scientists play a key role in the production of quinoa in Puno, Peru. That may seem overly obvious from a scientific point of view, but this fact easily gets overshadowed in contemporary marketing images of happy indigenous farmers in traditional clothing, alpacas grazing open fields, and organic quinoa blowing in the wind. Moving beyond these representations to where quinoa is produced in primarily in the Titicaca – Poopo basin between Peru and Bolivia, it becomes clear just how much some agronomists shift back-and-forth between so-called ‘forward-looking’ agricultural science and ‘traditional’ quinoa agricultures, which they view not as opposed but as complementary and mutually reinforcing. The examples explored below take inspiration from Gabriela Soto-Laveaga’s Jungle Laboratories (2009). Yet, rather than seeking to recuperate the hidden histories and lives of indigenous producers behind the ‘scientific’ creation of the Pill, I draw here on ethnographic research in southern Peru to analyze the work of several Puneño agronomists who actively use their scientific capital to keep indigenous knowledge, agriculture and history a part of quinoa’s story.

Quinoa’s Agricultural (Social) Scientists

Agronomist Alipio Canahua Murillo and Plant Geneticist Angel Mujica are two of the vanguard who began research in earnest on quinoa in the late 1960s and 70s, work which has continued to this day. Recently, Murillo and Mujica published the Aymara myth to argue for the need, in agricultural circles and in the broader public consciousness, to keep in mind quinoa’s history as it is asked to take on more of a role in the future of global food security.

For Murillo in southern Peru, agricultural science isn’t divorced from local agricultural practices, including the social relations and lives of indigenous Quechua and Aymara farmers. For example, Murillo currently works alongside both Aymara farmers and 5-star tourist hotels in Puno city, collecting recipes using local quinoa varieties and bringing them to executive chefs in the hotels in order to adapt them for tourist palates. Murillo and executive chef Jose Maguiña joke that they are promoting local agriculture through “la conquista del estomago de la turista”, or the conquest of the tourist’s stomach. But this is not just about exporting more quinoa. Becoming more serious, Murillo continues that Puno has the highest rates of malnutrition in Peru (Collyns, 2011), an issue he also wants to tackle through this project.

Murillo’s agro-gastronomic project is three pronged. First, the trick is to create a demand for local, non-market varieties of quinoa as a means to incentivize farmers to grow rather than replace them with market-demanded varieties. Why does this matter? Locally adapted varieties of quinoa are more resistant to the increasingly erratic effects of climate change in the Altiplano. Further, multi-variety planting, known as chaccru in Quechua and chajillo in Aymara, is a risk-controlling strategy that helps ensure a harvest. According to local knowledge, this strategy improves the assurance of a viable harvest and food security for farmers. Additionally, this opens up better opportunities to engage in the expanding quinoa market as demand for new colorful varietals gain momentum.

Second, Murillo draws on the social capital of foreign tourists and their tastes for exotic cuisines as a means to revalorize traditional recipes, varieties, and uses for quinoa among locals, thereby encouraging healthier food consumption in the Altiplano. This appears counterintuitive, but local tastes and desires for foods have been deeply shaped by the influx of ‘external’ foods – eating rice and noodles, for Puneños, is a way to signal their cosmopolitan embrace of modernity. What that has meant, is increasing instances of malnutrition, as people who would have otherwise eaten quinoa overlook it for its ‘whiter’, less-nutritious counterparts (Jacobsen 2011). This is not a question of full stomachs versus empty stomachs then, but a rather different one of dietary preferences and food quality. So, if social capital based on ‘modern’ tastes can sway populations towards less-nutritious food consumption, Murillo thinks that perhaps quinoa’s rising superfood status amongst Western consumers can reverse the trend too.

Third, Murillo is working with local communities to recuperate a traditional form of ecological agriculture based in communally-held land called aynok’a in Aymara. This form of production emphasizes not only quinoa, but a seven-year cycle of crop rotation – beginning with potato, followed by quinoa, then tarwi (an Andean legume traditionally grown in the third year, now mostly replaced by barley or oats), followed by a three-year rest period. For example, the population center of Pallallamarka has 15 aynok’as, four of which grew quinoa in the 2015-2016. For the following year, the quinoa fields will be replaced by barley or oats, and the potatoes by quinoa, etc. This system of agriculture, developed over thousands of years in the southern Altiplano, is under rapid decline, with more than 50% of aynok’as abandoned (Canahua, et al., 2002).

Part of Murillo’s quest, then, is to gloss traditional agricultural practices as forward-looking, in essence using the language of agronomy and science to validate extant cultural truths: multi-variety plots help promote agrobiodiversity and crop improvement, and crop rotation provides a natural cycle of nitrogen-fixing and pest management without the need for chemical pesticides. Murillo and colleagues argue that production practices like aynok’as, or ditched agriculture known as suka’k’ollas, (Canahua, 2014) or terraced agriculture known as andenes can provide solutions to some of the most pressing food-related challenges presented by climate change.

Another side of this puzzle is the use of gastronomy and market demand to promote these practices. This mixing of market, culinary, and local logics reveals ambiguities that can be perceived as a threat to biodiversity and cultural practices as well as a possible mechanism for conservation, self-esteem, and improved livelihoods. Quinoa as the fulcrum of Murillo’s project complicates these ambiguities as its own shifting status reveals power inequalities playing off of different layers of social capital and competing claims for legitimacy. For example, quinoa’s 10-year rise to global demand masks the fact that it has been socially denigrated in the Altiplano for over 500 years. First the Spanish and then the rising mestizo class rejected quinoa as food for the poor, for the Indians. But the increasing availability of information on quinoa’s nutrition alongside the prestige of global demand is also turning local perception of quinoa on its head.

Perhaps this is partially why Murillo and Mujica published the story. This temporal, scientific, and cultural mixing points towards the hybrid representations of quinoa promoted by some agricultural scientists in southern Peru. Murillo’s work might complicate Maria Elena Garcia’s (2013) observation that large gastronomy movements like Mistura in Lima tend to exclude the indigenous lives who create these recipes in the first place. Actively fighting against such silences, Murillo’s piece of the quinoa puzzle gives us pause to reconsider the role of agricultural scientists as brokers between local indigenous agriculture, market logics, and forward-looking climate and nutritional sciences while also considering how social capital and inequality play into whose voices get heard.


Canahua, A. 2014. Revaloración del agro ecosistema tradicional de sukaqollos y desarrollo agrícola en Puno – Perú. http://www.minam.gob.pe/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/04-Alipio-Canahua-Humedales-Altoandinos-y-Agricultura.pdf

Canahua, A. M. Tapia, Z. Cutipa y A. Ichuta. 2002. Gestión del espacio agrícola y agro biodiversidad de la papa y quinua en comunidades de Puno. http://www.sepia.org.pe/facipub/upload/cont/881/cont/file/20080903022232_gestionespacio_canahuatapia.pdf,

Canahua, A. y A. Mujica. 2013. Quinua: pasado, presente y futuro. http://quinua.pe/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2013/04/quinuapasadopresenteyfuturo.pdf

Collyns, D. 2011. Can Peru’s new government continue to make progress on child nutrition? | Dan Collyns. Retrieved January 8, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/sep/27/peru-new-government-child-nutrition.

García, M. E. 2013. The Taste of Conquest: Colonialism, Cosmopolitics, and the Dark Side of Peru’s Gastronomic Boom: The Taste of Conquest. The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, 18(3), 505–524. http://doi.org/10.1111/jlca.12044

Jacobsen, S.E. 2011. ‘The situation for quinoa and its production in Southern Bolivia: from economic success to environmental disaster’, Journal of Agronomy and Crop Science, vol 197, pp.390–399.

Laveaga, G. S. 2009. Jungle Laboratories: Mexican Peasants, National Projects, and the Making of the Pill. Duke University Press Books.

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Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

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