Quinoa A Promising Grain from South America

Quinoa, Chenopodium Quinua, was a staple food crop of the Aztecs, and is still grown today by Andean peasants (see map). One of Quinoa's most remarkable features is its resiliance. It survives and produces in areas where other crops fail. Qinoa fed an empire while being grown on rocky, alkaline, and saline soils, with little rainfall.

Quinoa is 16% protein-considerably more than most common staple grains have at 10-12 % protein. It is a good source of oil and fat as well as calcium, iron, vitamin E, and several of the B vitamins. Thirty-seven percent of quinoa's total protein is composed of essential amino acids in proportions similar to those found in milk. Thus quinoa is an effective substitute for meat and oilseeds. Andean peseants prepare and use quinoa in many ways. They boil and eat it like rice, add it to soups, pop it like popcorn, and even brew it into beer. They use quinoa's edible leaves in salads and also as animal fodder. Quinoa stalks are composted, consumed by grazing animals, and used as fuel for cooking. The water quinoa is washed in makes a shampoo. Quinoa's low gluten content, however, prevents its use in the production of backed products such as bread, pasta and biscuits.

Quinoa is found from the valleys and plains of the Andes to the island of ChiloŽ in southern Chile. Through out this range quinoa exhibits a tremendous amount of genetic variation, corresponding to the wide variety of environments to which it has adapted. Matching these ecotypes to new mountain regions will require a great deal of testing in each new location.

Humberto Gandarillas of Bolivia has been working with quinoa since the 1960's. His ambitious breeding program has broadened quinoa's genetic pool considerably. The Instituto Boliviano de Tecnologia Agropecuaria (IBTA), with the support of IDRC funding, has created a regional research base for refinement of cropping practices and genetic selection of quinoa. Research in the U.S. began with the Sierra Blanca Associates of Denver Colorado, and continues at the University of Colorado as well as many other organizations today. Research has led to the development of improved, well-adapted strains of quinoa in Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. Breeding programs in these three countries have been aimed at obtaining several objectives: high yield-per-hectare under difficult soil-climate conditions; high protein and sulphur/lysine amino acid content of the seeds; even rates of maturity and seed head form; and resistance to shattering to permit mechanical harvesting.

Research trials in Colorado showed that short day lengths may not be necessary at high elevations. In 1982 David F. Cusak of Sierra Blanca Associates tried to compensate for 16-hour days by growing plots in the shadow of mountain ranges, and compared the results of these plots with others grown away from any direct sunlight-reducing obstructions. Without exception, the unshaded plots matured more rapidly and more fully than the former. For the species of quinoa used in this experiment, day length was not a limiting factor. This bodes will for quinoa's ability to produce outside of the conditions present in the Andes, a concern which has dominated the scientific community in regard to quinoa produciton.

Other Sierra Blanca trials in Colorado showed that improved cultivation techniques successfully improved yields to as high as 4,000 kg. per hectare. Quinoa's traditional reputation for producing low yields -400 to 800 kg. per hectare on Andean peasant farms-is therefore false. Quinoa has been assumed to be best adapted to rocky, alkaline, and saline soils with little rainfall, and to receiving little care. While it is true that quinoa tolerates these conditions, it responds well to weeding, thinning, nitrogen fertilizer, and sufficient water at critical growth periods.

Other breeding objectives are controversial, especially those to develop new saponin-free varieties. This bitter compound is found in quinoa's seed coat and prevents predation of the seeds by birds. To remove the saponins from the seed coat genetically would make quinoa vulnerable to pests and require the application of expensive and dangerous pesticides. Furthermore, the new sweet varieties will cross-pollinate with dominant bitter varieties and lose their sweetness in subsequent generations. Currently, the saponins are removed by washing the grain in running water. Quinoa can also be de-hulled mechanically or by hand, but this method does not remove all of the saponin, and may depreciate the nutritional value.

Network Established

Together with quinoa researchers in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, IBTA has established the Andean Crops Network. The members of this organization meet yearly to exchange scientific information and the latest research results. Canada's International Development Research Center has supported quinoa projects, including one- or two-day courses offered to farmers four or five times a year. Each attracts from 25 to 40 participants. Topics covered include nutritional value, grain characteristics, pest and disease tolerance, growth habits, and optimum cropping practices. IDRC has also provided funds to pilot processing plants in the Andes to make quinoa refinement more efficient. IDRC has sponsored programs in Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia.

Quinoa's ability to grow under extremely adverse conditions and yet produce a high protein food is remarkable. Hopefully, the new knowledge produced by breeding and farming systems research may give quinoa a chance to recover its former position of importance in the Andes and to become a viable alternative crop for other parts of the world.

For more information:

Ing. Humberto Gandarillas
Instituto Boliviano de Tecnologîa Agropecuaria
Casilla Postal 5783
La Paz, Bolivia