We recently attended a conference organised by the Desert Restoration Hub, held at Greenwich University in London. From a very interesting programme, one talk in particular, from James Reynolds of Duke University, stood out. It was particularly timely as the UN has decreed 2013 to be the “Year of Quinoa.
|The location of the Altiplano in the central Andes. Map: Wikimedia commons|
|Aerial view of the arid Altiplano between Sicuani (Cusco) and Ayaviri (Puno), Peru. The altitude here is about 3900 m. Photo: Maurice Chédel|
Quinoa is well suited to cool, dry environments on poor soils, although it does need well-distributed rainfall during establishment. It will grow well on salt-affected land, and is perfectly at home at high altitudes. It is related to the widespread temperate weed known in the UK as Fat Hen (C. album) which is sometimes cultivated as a vegetable, and to other pseudo-cereals such as grain amaranth that are grown in other parts of the world, for example the Himalayas. A shrub that can grow to more than 2 m high, in flower and at harvest quinoa brings vibrant colours to the otherwise monotone semi-desert.
Quinoa plants near Cachora, Apurímac, Peru. Altitude: 3800m. Photo: Maurice Chédel
Quinoa has a very good nutrient composition compared with most cereals. The grains contain all ten essential amino acids, high fibre, and high concentrations of minerals such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and iron. Over the centuries, local farmers have kept and sown their own seed. As quinoa becomes adapted to particular micro-environments, the area where it grows shows very high biodiversity, and there are a great many landraces each adapted to its own particular environmental niche.
Traditionally, the crop has been grown for subsistence, and farmers have largely cooperated with such things as land preparation and harvest. Although it responds to fertilizer, traditionally little or none has been applied. However, in recent years increasing realisation of the health benefits of the grain has led to very high commercial demand from, for example, the US, Europe and Australia.
This has had a number of undesirable consequences. The high demand has led to a tripling in prices to, for some varieties, USD 8,000 per tonne, which has fuelled an increase in the area of the crop. The increased prices have led to increased mechanisation, and to the crop spreading to increasingly marginal land which is damaged by the cultivation operations. This is leading in some cases to increased erosion. The high prices also mean that local farmers are more likely to sell their harvest, rather than using it to supplement diets that are otherwise energy-rich but nutrient-poor, and that poor people in towns and cities can no longer afford it. Increased wealth also means that sales of “junk” food and drink are increasing among the farmers, and obesity is rising as a result.
Similarly, changes in culture and social behaviour are becoming apparent. For example, farmers are apparently now far less likely to cooperate with each other than previously, and there have even been reports of conflict over quinoa-growing land.
What does this all tell us? Clearly, we need to help smallholder farmers increase their production and yields, but this has to be done in a sustainable way. If a price boom leads to unsustainable production practices then many problems can result.