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Quinoa questions remain as UN year concludes

Matthew Weaver

Capital Press

The International Year of Quinoa raised awareness of the crop, but backers say questions still remain for efforts to increase production of the crop.

The United Nations-sponsored International Year of Quinoa raised the crop’s profile in the U.S. and elsewhere, backers say, but hurdles remain before it can be widely grown.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa, heralding the crop’s nutritional value and adaptability.

Quinoa is unique in that its popularity in the U.S. and elsewhere has driven up its price to the point where some people in the nations where it is commonly grown can no longer afford it.

Farmers in Bolivia receive about 75 percent of the export price, about $1.36 per pound, compared to the consumer price, which ranges from $6.36 to $8 a pound in U.S. supermarkets, said Salomon Salcedo, senior policy officer for the year of quinoa.

“Quinoa has been, and still is, a family farming crop,” Salcedo said. “We very much would like to keep it that way, because quinoa demand has been growing exponentially over the past years. Quinoa prices have skyrocketed, so we believe this is a big opportunity for farmers who are quinoa producers to take advantage of this growing market.”

Quinoa, a species of goose foot, produces a gluten-free seed that can be substituted for wheat and other grains. It is commonly grown in parts of South America but is being adapted for cultivation in the Pacific Northwest and other regions of the world.

University of Copenhagen professor Sven-Erik Jacobsen, who delivered the keynote address during an international quinoa symposium at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., says the next steps to satisfy market demand have not been defined.

“There are more questions than answers at this point,” said Albion, Wash., farmer Ian Clark, who raised 2.5 acres of quinoa last summer.

Clark considers cleaning and processing of the crop to be the biggest unknown. Without a specialized cleaning plant, it’s difficult to remove the saponin coating from the seed. There’s interest in building a plant, but that would be a major investment, Clark said, and the location remains to be determined.

“Without a practical way of cleaning it, we have no way to send the crop to market,” he said.

Other unknowns include dealing with quinoa’s low heat tolerance and weed control.

“We’re linking up farmers with distributors and consumers,” said Washington State University breeder Kevin Murphy. “We’re trying to get entrepreneurial interest in development of a quinoa processing facility, somewhere in Washington or the Pacific Northwest.”

Murphy will continue his work to find a variety suited for the region. Future research efforts will include insect and disease resistance. Murphy is collaborating with researchers who will examine quinoa’s nutritional value and end-use quality, and where it would fit into crop rotations and soil microbial activity.

Even with all the unknowns, quinoa is on more people’s radar.

Frank Morton, breeder and seed dealer at Wild Garden Seed in Philomath, Ore., said his company has received orders for quinoa varieties from around the world.

“Not a day goes by that we aren’t sending out quinoa planting stock to someone in the U.S. or elsewhere,” he said. “Most of these orders are from folks who have never tried growing quinoa, in regions where it has never been grown.”


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