The return of the ancient food of the gods:  Quinoa

Challenge:  maintaining genetic diversity to adapt to environmental change

Natural inspiration: rediscovering ancient crops

 

Agriculture is one of the most important influences on biological diversity.  Modern conventional farming techniques generally involves large areas of uniform crops, or ‘monocultures’, and requires significant inputs of herbicides, insecticides and fungicide.  Although thus contributing to the reduction of genetic, species and ecosystems diversity,1 agriculture itself relies on the variety within crop species to fight pests and disease and provide resilience in the face of environmental change.  

 

While worldwide agriculture may employ hundreds of species and varieties, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that today four species, namely, wheat, rice, corn and potatoes constitute over 50% of global staple food crops.  Similarly 12-14 animal species provide 90% of all animal protein produced globally. Scientists estimate that around 75% of agricultural diversity has been lost over the last century2,3.  The substitution of a large number of species by only a few and the adoption of relatively few, uniform, high-yielding varieties in food production makes humans vulnerable to potential crop failure due to disease, drought, floods, and other natural and man-made disasters.

 

With world population projected to grow to 9 billion by 2050, food production, and specifically food security, and climate related issues are pressing the agricultural industry to review ‘old’ food sources.  Many of these traditional agricultural species and varieties, which have played an important role in the development of human culture and society over the centuries, may hold the key for food security in the future. 

Quinoa growing in the Bolivian Altiplano, Mt Tunupa © Andean Naturals

Quinoa (pronounced KEEn-wah or KEE-noe-ə) is one of these ancient food sources that has, over the past decade, gained a large following.  Technically quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa, Willd) is not a true grain, but the seed of the Chenopodium or Goosefoot, a plant in the family Amaranthaceae, closely related to spinach and beets.  

 
History

In effect a pseudo-cereal, quinoa has been cultivated for its seed throughout the Andean region of South America for over 5000 years.  It played an important role in the ancient Inca civilisation being considered so sacred that it was referred to as the ‘Mother Grain’ (chisiya mama) or ‘Grain of the Gods’. For each new planting season the Incan emperor would break the soil with a golden spade and plant the first seed4.  Together with the potato it was, and still does, form an important part of the staple diet of the people living on the high plateau regions of Bolivia, Farmers bundling quinoa © Quinoa CorpPeru, Ecuador and Colombia.

 

With the Spanish settlers came new cereals and quinoa became associated as a food of the native people and lower socio-economic classes.  The bitter taste of the saponin coating the seed was also disliked by the settlers and is removed, by washing or milling the seed, before cooking.  The fact that quinoa was considered the “Mother Grain” and “Grain of the Gods” also put it in conflict with the Catholic religious leaders accompanying of the Spanish Conquistadors; who subsequently discouraged its production and consumption in the newly conquered territories of Peru5.  Winnowing quinoa © Andean Naturals

 

Cultivation

Quinoa grows at altitude, between temperatures -1oC to 35oC, in soil pH 6 to 8.5 and can grow in low rainfall areas too.  These unique qualities has lead to quinoa being one of the food crops selected by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as destined to offer food security in the next century6.  The best production requires conditions only found at high altitude in terms of high UV rays, cool night time temperatures and hot days7 a fact highlighted by the problem of sterile pollen at lower altitudes8
 

Although the bitter coating of the seeds may have caused the first European settlers to reject quinoa as a food source — even though they adopted other indigenous products, such as maize and potatoes, it has beneficial effects for the cultivator; this crop is relatively untouched by birds and thus requires minimal protection from pests.

 

 

Unique varieties

Traditional cultivation has enabled the preservation of the great genetic diversity within this species, with thousands of varieties all demonstrating unique morphological characteristics and ability to grow in diversity in seed colour © Andean Naturalsvery different situations.  Variability includes; the colour of the plant, inflorescence and seeds (cream, pink, red to brown and black), types of inflorescence, protein content, saponin content, betacyanine and calcium oxalate crystals in the leaves, so that a wide adaptation to different agro-ecological conditions (soils, precipitation, temperature, altitude, resistance to frost, drought, salinity or acidity) may be observed9.  It time, this great variability and ability to grow in different ecotypes10, will facilitate the development of a wide variety of diverse cultivars suited to different situations worldwide.   

 

Nutritional Contribution

Quinoa is extremely versatile.  Pop like popcorn, mill into flour, boil and use as a rice replacement or sprout and use as a green vegetable.  The leaves and stalks are also fed to livestock and it can be used in sweet and savory dishes alike.  Even the saponins, when extracted, have agricultural use; as a plant growth stimulant—promoting root growth and seed germination—and as a nematicide11.

 

Quinoa cake © Amanda GregoryStudies of quinoa have led to the discovery that this grain is of extremely high nutritional value (Table 1) containing high quality protein, low sodium content, high mineral content (Table 2) such as, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, iron, copper, manganese, and zinc and significant amounts of important amino acids, especially lysine, vital for tissue growth and repair (Table 3).  Quinoa is also gluten free, and so ideal for individuals who are gluten-intolerant, plus it contains no cholesterol and is easily digestible.  Quinoa compares very favourably with various grains (see Tables 1, 2 and 3) and as a consequence is becoming increasing popular with consumers.

 

 

 

Table1.  Nutritional analysis of field-grown quinoa compared with various grains

Crop

% dry weight

 

Water

Crude protein

Fat

Carbohydrate

Fibre

Ash

Quinoa

12.6

13.8

5.0

59.7

4.1

3.4

Barley

9.0

14.7

1.1

67.8

2.0

5.5

Buckwheat

10.7

18.5

4.9

43.5

18.2

4.2

Corn

13.5

8.7

3.9

70.9

1.7

1.2

Millet

11.0

11.9

4.0

68.6

2.0

2.0

Oats

13.5

11.1

4.6

57.6

0.3

2.9

Rice

11.0

7.3

0.4

80.4

0.4

0.5

Rye

13.5

11.5

1.2

69.6

2.6

1.5

Wheat

10.9

13.0

1.6

70.0

2.7

1.8

Source: Johnson and Croissant (1985)12

 

Table 2.  Mineral composition and vitamin concentrations in quinoa and selected cereals

Minerals mg/kg dry wt

Quinoa

Wheat

Rice

Barley

Ca

1487

503

69

430

Mg

2496

1694

735

1291

K

9267

5783

1183

5028

P

3837

4677

1378

3873

Fe

132

38

7

32

Cu

51

7

2

3

Zn

44

47

6

35

Vitamins  (mg/100 g dry wt)

 

 

 

 

Thiamin (B1)

0.38

0.55

0.47

0.49

Riboflavin (B2)

0.39

0.16

0.10

0.20

Niacin (B3)

1.06

5.88

5.98

5.44

Ascorbic acid (C)

4.00

0

0

0

α-Tocopherol (E)

5.37

1.15

0.18

0.35

β-Carotene (A)

0.39

0.02

NR

0.01

NR = not reported

Source: Koziol (1992)13

 

Table 3.  Amino acid content of quinoa to other products and recommended  intake

Amino Acid

Amino Acid Content (g/100g protein) (%)

Recommended daily

allowance (FAO)

 

Quinoa

Wheat

Soy

Skim Milk

 

Isoleucine

4.0

3.8

4.7

5.6

4.0

Leucine

6.8

6.6

7.0

9.8

7.0

Lysine

5.1

2.5

6.3

8.2

5.5

Phenylalanine

4.6

4.5

4.6

4.8

-

Tyrosine

3.8

3.0

3.6

5.0

-

Cystine

2.4

2.2

1.4

0.9

-

Methionine

2.2

1.7

1.4

2.6

-

Threonine

3.7

2.9

3.9

4.6

4.0

Tryptophan

1.2

1.3

1.2

1.3

1.0

Valine

4.8

4.7

4.9

6.9

5.0

Source: Schlick and Bubenheim (1993)14

 
Biodiversity Status

While there is only one species of quinoa the crop is more or less a complex of thousands of subspecies, varieties, and landraces with many of these relic cultivars threatened15

 

Diversity of quinoa growing in Bolivia © Andean NaturalsThroughout the Andean region there are several gene banks where the accessions are preserved in cold-storage rooms.  However, there are still areas of genetic diversity where no collections, such as the islands of Lake Titicaca, the areas above 3,900m in Peru and Bolivia, the semi-arid inter-Andean valleys, the salt-pans; the valleys of the eastern slope of the Andes and the cold zones of Argentina, have been made.

With several species forming large thickets, quinoa provides excellent cover for small animals as well as a source of food. The foliage of the plant supplies food for caterpillars of certain butterflies.  In dry, high altitude areas where tree cover is scarce such cover is important for wildlife.

 

Economic Aspects

Traditionally a crop largely of subsistence farmers in the highlands of the Andean countries of Latin America, quinoa has emerged onto the global market only just over two decades ago. With growing interest of health conscious consumers in North America and Europe, increased demand has fostered an expansion in both production and trade of this ancient crop (Graph 1).  

Total production of quinoa, 2005-2007

Research in the UK and field work in Kenya has shown that traditional relatively low levels of productivity (Table 4) can be improved to as much as 5 tonnes per hectares in some cases.

 

Table 4. Acreage and yield in major quinoa producing countries, 2009

 

Countries

Area Planted

(Ha)

Average Yield (Kg/Ha)

Bolivia

48,136

587

Peru

34,026

1176

Ecuador*

980

704

Total

83,142

--

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
* estimate 2008

Source: FAOSTAT

In the 1980s, 100 pounds of quinoa sold for $7 (about £3.12, or about $154 per MT) inside Bolivia.16 In 2004 the price of a metric tonne (MT) of organic quinoa in European and US markets was approximately $410, up to five times higher than the international price for soya per metric tonne17.  Between 2005 and 2009 Bolivian exports to the US increased more than fourfold18. Most noteworthy is the 2007 to 2009 increase in prices for quinoa – a rise of 120%, passing the minimum price levels set by the Fair Trade Labelling Organization (FLO)19. Though difficult to obtain, trade statistics are impressive (cf. Table 5).

 

Table 5. Quinoa Export Trade, 2005-2007

 

Major exporting countries

Volume

MT

Total Value

$ ‘000

Unit Value

$/MT

 

2005

2006

2007

2005

2006

2007

2005

2006

2007

Peru

n.a.

n.a.

n.a.

n.a.

n.a.

n.a.

n.a.

n.a.

n.a.

Bolivia

4826

7752

10456

5573

8914

13107

1155

1150

1254

Ecuador

280

264

259

422

382

400

1507

1447

1544

Source: FAOSTAT
 
Formerly available only in specialty health food stores, quinoa can now be found as well in major supermarkets in the US and UK.  Initially introduced as a cereal alternative, it now is included in mixed grain preparations, crackers, biscuits, breads and sports drinks, among other prepared foods. Currently UK prices range between £6 and £10 per kilogram for organic white quinoa (Sep 2010). A versatile food increasingly popular with the public, the US National Restaurant Association ranked it as a trendy side dish for 2010.20
 
Despite this success a recent review in the journal Trends in Food Science & Technology concluded that Quinoa ripening in Eynsham, UK © Heather Hornerthe “availability of these products[using pseudo-cereals such as quinoa] in the market is still quite limited. More research is necessary to fully exploit the functionality of these seeds as gluten-free ingredients in the production of palatable products which are also nutritionally balanced.” 21
 

One of the major producers begun in 2004 holding 24% of the US market reportedly sources its more than 5.5 million tons of organic quinoa from some 2500 family farms in the Andes region. As reported by one quinoa-producing farm family member commenting on the impact of the rising prices of this product; "It's changed everyone's life," she said of the increase in quinoa prices over the past 15 years. "Everyone has a car now, better incomes and better houses."22  However, there are many lower-income Bolivians who can no longer afford to buy quinoa and now must subsist on cheaper rice and potatoes. Some environmentalists and exporters also are concerned that increased production will compromise the fragile plains environment where the plant is grown.23

 

Quinoa bundled and ready to thresh, Eynsham, UK. © Heather HornerSuccess on international markets and the resulting increase in quinoa prices has contributed much needed hard currency to the coffers of the developing country exporters as well as increased income opportunities for local peasant farmers.  With the rising price of quinoa, rural-to-urban migration from quinoa-growing communities has dropped significantly in some areas.  Small-scale entrepreneurs are also attempting to cash in on the new popularity of this pseudo-cereal. Thus, one finds new factories producing breakfast cereals; energy bars and quinoa-based beer emerging around Bolivia.

 

With the rapid expansion of the market for quinoa, farmers in other countries with high altitude agriculture have also shown an interest. We now see production of this product in Nepal, Ethiopia and Kenya, as well as in a number of locations across the UK.  While Peru and Ecuador rank relatively well (at 78 and 80) in the Human Development Index (HDI) Bolivia, Nepal and Ethiopia rank toward the bottom (at 113, 144 and 171 out of 192). 24  The versatility of this crop,  both in terms of cultivation requirements as well as use, would predict that it will have an important role to play in expanding agricultural production in remote and often poor regions, promoting resilience in the face of climate change and enriching the diet of the consuming countries.  The potential for quinoa to contribute to poverty alleviation, especially in areas known to experiance extreme poverty, is significant.  

 

The recent revival of quinoa is just one of a host of stories illustrating the important contribution of biodiversity in addressing key social, economic and environmental issues today.

 
 

References:

  1. Hardy Vogtmann (BfN) in Rachel Wiseman and Liz Hopkins (2001) Sowing the seeds for sustainability Agriculture, Biodiversity, Economics and Society.  IUCN
  2. Virgo P (2010)  Biodiversity: Not Just About Tigers and Pandas  Truthout.  Interpress service.  Accessed September 2010
  3. IUCN (2009) Agrobiodiversity –food insurance in an uncertain world.  Online new story.   7 August 2009  Accessed September 2010
  4. Office of International Affairs (1989)  Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation    Report of an Ad Hoc Panel of the Advisory Committee on Technology Innovation Board on Science and Technology for International Development.  National Research Council.  p148-161.  The National Academies Press, Washington DC USA   Accessed September 2010
  5. Krigbaum J (2006) Case Study – Quinoa Market Development – Demand-Driven Niche Marketing for Indigenous Crops  2020 Development Company  Accessed September 2010
  6. Jacobsen SE (2000) Quinoa: Research and development at the International Potato Centre (CIP) Condesan.  Accessed September 2010
  7. Krigbaum J (2006) Case Study – Quinoa Market Development – Demand-Driven Niche Marketing for Indigenous Crops  2020 Development Company  Accessed September 2010
  8. FAO (2005)  Lin E (Ed) Production and processing of small seeds for birds  Chapter 4:  Bird food grains with potential for the tropics and semi-tropics  Agricultural and food engineering.  Technical Report 1.  United Nations, Rome  Accessed September 2010
  9. Hernandez Bermejo JE and Leon J (Eds) (1995) Neglected crops 1492 from a different perspective. Botanical Garden of Cordoba, Andalucia   Accessed September 2010
  10. Valencia-Chamorro SA (2003) Quinoa. In: Caballero B.: Encyclopaedia of Food Science and Nutrition. Vol 8:  4895–4902.  Academic Press, Amsterdam
  11. CCBOL Group ( X)  QUINOA SAPONINS - QS 350   Accessed September 2010
  12. Johnson DL, and Croissant RL (1985)  Quinoa production in Colorado  Service-in-Action No 112.  Colorado Sate Uni Coop.  Fort Collins, CO.
  13. Koziol, MJ (1992) Chemical composition and nutritional evaluation of quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd). J. Food Comp. Anal. 5: 36-68
  14. Schlick, G and Bubenheim, DL (1993)  Quinoa: An Emerging "New" Crop with Potential for CELSS NASA Technical Paper 3422  Accessed September 2010
  15. Office of International Affairs (1989)  Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation    Report of an Ad Hoc Panel of the Advisory Committee on Technology Innovation Board on Science and Technology for International Development.  National Research Council.  p148-161.  The National Academies Press, Washington DC USA  Accessed September 2010
  16. Shahriari, S (2010)  Quinoa: Bolivia's Nutty-Tasting Export Success  Global Post. Accessed September 2010
  17. Rojas, W, Soto, JL and Carrasco E (2004)  Study on the social, environmental and economic impacts of Quinoa promotion in Bolivia.  PROINPA Foundation. La Paz, Bolivia   Accessed September 2010
  18. Shahriari, S (2010)  Quinoa: Bolivia's Nutty-Tasting Export Success  Global Post.  Accessed September 2010 
  19. Anon  (2010)  Quinoa, a success story for small organic family farms in the Andes   Andean Naturals  Accessed September 2010
  20. National Restaurants Association  Accessed September 2010
  21. Alvarez-Jubete,L  Arendt, EK and Gallagher, E. (2010) Nutritive value of pseudocereals and their increasing use as functional gluten-free ingredients.  Trends in Food Science & Technology  Vol. 21: 106-113
  22. Shahriari, S (2010)  Quinoa: Bolivia's Nutty-Tasting Export Success  Global Post.  Accessed September 2010
  23. Shahriari, S (2010)  Quinoa: Bolivia's Nutty-Tasting Export Success  Global Post.  Accessed September 2010
  24. Shahriari, S (2010)  Quinoa: Bolivia's Nutty-Tasting Export Success.  Global Post.  Accessed September 2010

 

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