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Quinoa, lost and found April 19th, 2015 by

Before the discovery of quinoa as a wonder food, in about the year 2000, Andean farmers were starting to abandon it. The brightly colored grains were considered a poor person’s food, a crop to be ashamed of. One of quinoa’s saving graces is that it grows well at altitudes of up to 5000 meters, where little else grows, not even the hardy potato.

As early as 2003 some researchers helped the farmers to realize the value of quinoa, showing them that by adding a bit of fertilizer the traditional intercrop of quinoa and oats yielded much more. (Read related paper Unspoken demands for farm technology).

Even earlier, before anyone thought that quinoa was cool, Bolivian plant breeder Alejando Bonifacio and colleagues had been conserving varieties of the crop. Dr. Bonifacio, born and raised on the Bolivian Altiplano, realized the importance of quinoa when few others did. In 1997, the research agency he worked for collapsed when World Bank support ended, and most agricultural stations were closed.

Researchers often fail to communicate the value of their work with their nearest neighbors, and after the stations closed, local farmers vandalized some, and ate the collections of crop varieties.

The quinoa collection avoided this fate, because Dr. Bonifacio took the 300 or so seed samples home, and saved them in little jars until he found work later with another agency.

When the market for quinoa boomed, there was little demand for the whole diversity held in those 300 jars. The market only wanted “royal quinoa:” large, white sweet grains, not the small ones, or colored ones or the ones with the soapy-tasting saponine.

Quinoa’s success has been good in many ways. It has given impoverished family farmers a new cash crop. Quinoa as a crop has been saved from extinction. Family businesses have grown up around quinoa processing and exporting.

Urban Bolivians have a new appreciation for quinoa and are eating it in cereals, pasta and snacks, made in Bolivia for the local market.

One of my favorites is “quinutrión”, a snack bar made with popped quinoa, honey and Brazil nuts (from lowland Bolivia). The label shows a cartoon armadillo, which Bolivians associate with the high plains, or Altiplano, where most quinoa is grown.

But fame and popularity can also be dangerous. Market preference for just a few varieties has made it harder to preserve the other types of quinoa. This loss of variety within a species is called “genetic erosion.”

Quinoa, like other crops, needs to keep all the genetic diversity it has. Future markets will require new traits, and new varieties will have to be bred for resistance against specific diseases (such as mildew) or for resistance to problems like hail (quite a problem at this high altitude). Keeping this genetic diversity into the future will be a challenge.

Quinoa’s success is also leading to that other form of erosion: lost soil. Instead of fertilizing and caring for a patch of quinoa every ear, farmers find it easier to plow up a fresh field with tractors, grow quinoa, and then abandon the land, leading some to fear that the Altiplano is being turned into a desert for the sake of quinoa.

Dr. Bonifacio and colleagues are now studying ways of conserving soil, including native legumes and grasses, planted with quinoa as live barriers, or as “improved fallow” to be planted after quinoa is harvested, to allow the soil to regenerate. New technologies, such as tractors, make labor more productive, although, they create new problems that demand research of their own.

Further reading:

Bonifacio, Alejandro, Genaro Aroni, & Milton Villca 2012 Catálogo Etnobotánico de la Quinua Real. Cochabamba, Bolivia: Proinpa. http://www.proinpa.org/tic/pdf/Quinua/Variedades%20de%20quinua/pdf33.pdf

Bonifacio, Alejandro Flores 2015. Traditional fallows support resilient farming on semi-arid sandy soils. Farming Matters 31(1): 34-36.

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