Superfoods: A rollercoaster ride from boom to bust for farmers
Where does your quinoa come from? It’s closer than you think. The supergrain has its roots in Peru and Bolivia, but the packets at your local supermarket are likely from one of four states in India — Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Karnataka.
The superfood farmers here grow mainly quinoa and chia — which, along with amaranth, have achieved a kind of celebrity status in the world of healthy eating.
Markets for everything quinoa are growing in Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru and Kolkata. There’s now quinoa idlis and payasam mix, cookies, poha mix, protein bars and even beer. There’s a growing market for chia too. You’ll have seen it popping up in drinks, muesli, ice-cream and even pasta. It’s not all hype and pretension.
The quinoa grain is 14% to 18% protein and is high in fibre content. Chia seeds are 16% protein and are rich in Omega 3 fatty acids. For vegetarians and vegans, they offer an almost-miraculous source of the protein and Omega 3, found in large quantities in meat and fish.
In fact, as vegetarianism, veganism and healthy eating become trendier and more vital around the world — amid a boom in the incidence of lifestyle diseases — global quinoa prices nearly tripled between 2006 and 2013.
The superfood got a further leg up when the United Nations declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa, because of its high nutritional values and the resilient nature of the crop.
It still wasn’t grown in India at this point, except by a very few urban farmers and organic hobbyists. But imported quinoa and chia had already been on restaurant and juice bar menus in the metro cities for about six years, and on the shelves of gourmet food majors like Godrej Nature’s Basket and Reliance Smart, and both superfoods had gained a cult following.
“The high protein and low carbs factor is making it increasingly popular. Quinoa works well as a grain replacing rice or in salads. Chia is used as a sprinkler,” says Riyaaz Amlani, restaurateur and head of Impresario Entertainment & Hospitality and former president of the National Restaurant Association of India.
For people like Rohini Sen, 31, in Sonepat, Akash Raha, 32, in Delhi and Sohini Dutta, 26, in Mumbai, chia and quinoa became part of their lives. Sen has a quinoa snack a few times a week because it is healthier than most other snacks. Dutta sprinkles chia seeds on her breakfast. “I took it up in a phase when I wanted to lose weight,” she says. And Raha always has a packet of chia seeds with him. “It is the easiest way to have a good nutritious breakfast, or a snack. Just soak some seeds in milk and you have a meal,” he says.
Meanwhile, quinoa seeds sat quietly in the vaults of the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources. They had been there since the 1950s, completely ignored.
That changed in 2014, when the Andhra Pradesh government launched Project Anantha.
“We were working on a way to tackle the drought and crop failure cycle of Anantapur, the second-least rain fed district in the country after Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. Quinoa seemed like a perfect option — a hardy crop that needed arid soil conditions,” says retired IAS officer K Chandramouli, who was state project director at the time.
Under Project Anantha, quinoa seeds were distributed to farmers in the district for large-scale cultivation, for the first time in India.
And it worked. Farmers made huge profits in 2015. N Venkatramanna, 52, who switched to quinoa from groundnut, made a profit of over Rs 1.25 lakh on just a 2.5 acre farm. Entire harvests were bought by dealers and companies that had set up shop in the region. They paid Rs 90 per kg.
By the end of 2015, word had spread and land under quinoa cultivation in Anantapur went from 70 acres to over 300. The rate per kg dropped to Rs 71.
Still, the farmers were making a profit. Venkatramanna arranged for a large wedding for his daughter and paid for his son to enlist in a degree college in Tamil Nadu.
There were now three companies — Natgrow, Orillet Foods and Quinoa Guru — with large quinoa processing units in Anantapur district alone. The machinery had to be brought over all the way from the US and cost about Rs 1.5 crore per unit. But they had hundreds of farmers and buyback agreements covering over 350 acres of land.
Retail partners began creating product lines — all those idlis and poha mixes you see on the shelves. “We saw great potential in the market,” says Jeevan Prashanth, executive director of Orillet Foods. “Last year, we even exported to Singapore.” There seemed no way to go but up. Then Andhra Pradesh lost its sole-producer tag.
In 2015, the Rajasthan government started a quinoa trial in the districts of Bhilwara and Chittorgarh, on 50 acres of land. Encouraged by the great harvest, they distributed 1,000 quinoa kits across 11 districts, to be sown over about 250 acres the following year.
The price of quinoa crashed, to between Rs 35 and Rs 40 per kg. Farmers in Anantapur, including Venkatramanna, began to switch back to groundnut and maize. In Rajasthan, farmers saw stocks pile up.
“The unplanned cultivation disturbed the entire market. Farmers have been forced to sell at Rs 20 and Rs 10 per kg,” says Nagendra Reddy, director of Natgrow. “We keep getting calls from Rajasthan with offers of even lower prices.”
THE RETURN OF MSP
Rajasthan had become the largest quinoa producer in India, but still has only one large processing unit; the government announced two others in June.
But that isn’t the real problem. The real problem is, there is right now just too much quinoa being grown in India for the domestic market. Production in Rajasthan stood at 6,000 tonnes in 2018. “Total production in India is not much higher, definitely less than 10,000 tonnes,” says Srinivasa K Rao of the Indian Quinoa Association.
Mahendra Singh, a producer and trader in Jalore district in Rajasthan, says he has over 50 tonnes of quinoa in stock that he is unable to sell. “There is limited demand in the retail market,” he adds. “Processing companies are worried if they take it from us, they won’t find takers either.”
In May, the Rajasthan government offered to buy quinoa at a Minimum Support Price (MSP) of Rs 50 per kg. It had only been four years, and already quinoa farmers were facing the kind of deadlock that typifies most agricultural experiments in India.
“The government intervention mechanism, except for paddy and wheat, has largely shown poor results in agriculture,” says YK Alagh, economist, former union minister and former head of the Institute of Rural Management, Anand. “Superfoods are here to stay, but they were never going to have a mass market — unless, as in Europe and the US, people made it a staple. And that can only happen through large-scale marketing efforts. When the government invests, they have to invest in both the market side and farm side.”
Devinder Sharma, an agricultural scientist and food and trade policy analyst, believes the government shouldn’t have invested in quinoa at all. “Why not use the superfood trend to promote millets, which are extremely nutrient-rich, are catching on around the world, and have been grown here for several centuries?” he says.
Sharma is optimistic that millets will eventually take over, as farmers cotton on to this, and become the base of the superfood pyramid in India.
AND ON TO CHIA
Reddy of Natgrow believes this “disturbance in the market” is only a phase and says he “is confident that the companies in Anantapur will figure out an MSP” so that quinoa cultivation can return to Anantapur.
Krishna Kanth, founder of Quinoa Guru, is hoping export will provide part of a solution.
Meanwhile, the companies based here have switched to another South American superfood — chia, which requires less processing and is as resilient. They hope to emulate the success of Raita Mitra, a company run by farmers, based in Mysore, Karnataka, that has been expanding in phases every year since 2014.
Raita Mitra started with five farmers on 10 acres of land in 2015 and now has 500 farmers growing chia on nearly 500 acres. There is some chia production in Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan too.
“We are seeing steady demand from fitness centres and pharmaceutical companies in Chennai, Bengaluru and metros further afoot,” says Raita Mitra chairman Kurubur Shantakumar. “But if we grow too much, too fast, this fledgling market could also be hit.”
(With inputs from P Srinivasan in Rajasthan)
(All acreage and yield figures are approximates sourced from the state agriculture departments, and the Quinoa Association of India)
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