Quinoa plants grow in a farmer's field in Patamanta, Bolivia. A burgeoning global demand for the Andean super grain is endangering the fragile highlands ecosystem.

New York - The growing global demand for quinoa by health food enthusiasts isn’t just raising prices for the Andean “super grain” and living standards among Bolivian farmers. Quinoa fever is running up against physical limits.

The scramble to grow more is prompting Bolivian farmers to abandon traditional land management practices, endangering the fragile ecosystem of the arid highlands, agronomists say.

Prices of quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah”) have tripled in five years – a surge fed by “foodies” making quinoa a hot health-food product based on its high content of protein and amino acids. It’s also gluten-free. Although used like a grain, quinoa is an edible seed.

The UN has designated 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa, and Bolivian President Evo Morales was at a special session of the world body in New York, along with Peru’s first lady, Nadine Heredia, to celebrate.

Their countries are the world’s two biggest producers.

Quinoa has been cultivated in the Andean highlands since at least 3 000BC, growing from Chile north to Colombia. It grows best at high altitudes in climates with cool days and even cooler nights.

In December, Morales mounted a tractor and ploughed furrows into the soil of his highlands home town, Orinoca, to promote quinoa as sowing season got under way. Townspeople sacrificed a llama to ask Pachamama, or Mother Earth, for a good harvest.

But last week, Morales was out chastising farmers for having planted quinoa in pastures where llamas traditionally graze.

Without the llamas’ manure, little would grow in the arid highlands more than 3km high where the most prized variety of quinoa originates.

“Quinoa goes hand in hand with the natural fertiliser that llamas produce and there must be a nutritional crossing between the two,” said Rossmary Jaldin, an expert on the crop.

Bolivia’s Deputy Minister of Rural Development, Victor Hugo Vasquez, said 30 percent of his country’s 70 000 quinoa producers were now children of peasants who had left their farms but had been drawn back by high quinoa prices.

He and the president of Bolivia’s quinoa producers association, Juan Crispin, say many of the growers don’t follow traditional farming methods and are depleting soils because they don’t rotate crops.

“We’re not going to work with them,” said Vasquez. “We are not going to help them.”

Morales’s government declared quinoa a strategic priority two years ago and has since disbursed $10 million (R90m) in credits for increasing yields to cash in on the boom.

The country’s quinoa crop expanded from 63 000 hectares in 2009 to 104 000ha last year, when it produced 58 000 tons, according to the Rural Development Ministry. That is more than 40 times the production in 2000.

Peru raised its production to 43 640 tons last year from 29 640 tons in 2009, and exported $30 million (R270m) worth – up 20 percent from the previous year.

Now farmers in other countries are beginning to plant quinoa, including Canada, Australia, China, India and Paraguay. – Sapa-AP