U.N.: Tiny crop has big potential
Researchers work to adapt plant to other regions; alternative for small-scale farms
By MATTHEW WEAVER
At first look, the word quinoa looks like the answer for a question in a game of Trivial Pursuit.
As in, "What is a nutritious seed that has been grown in South America for thousands of years that few people can pronounce?"
Quinoa -- pronounced KEEN-wah -- is a staple in countries like Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Chile and demand for it is growing among U.S. consumers looking for a gluten-free substitute for wheat.
To promote it, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa.
"It's really a tiny, tiny crop," said Alan Bojanic, deputy regional representative in the FAO's regional office in Santiago, Chile. He called quinoa production "negligible" compared to wheat, potatoes and rice.
"However, we want to recognize quinoa because of the potential," he said.
Quinoa, which is already produced in more than 70 countries, could ultimately feed millions of low-income people and assure a good income for thousands of small-scale farmers, Bojanic said.
Bojanic hopes to see quinoa's popularity grow.
"Though it's a small crop, we believe because of increased awareness, people are starting to try it," he said.
Bojanic also pointed to the hardiness of the crop, which grows in harsh environments and needs little water.
Relative of spinach
A member of the goosefoot family, quinoa is a "pseudo cereal," said Washington State University graduate student Adam Peterson. It's a seed, but not a member of the grass or grain families. He said it is more closely related to spinach, amaranth and beets.
"It's like a wheat in that you plant the seed, it grows and you get seed, which is the edible grain," WSU graduate student Hannah Walters said.
Peterson and Walters are members of the WSU team working to find a quinoa variety suitable for cultivation in the Pacific Northwest.
Worldwide, more than 247,000 acres are devoted to quinoa and roughly 50,000 farmers grow it, Bojanic estimated. Total world production is about 70,000 tons per year.
Bojanic said the FAO's production target is more than 200,000 tons annually within the next five years.
Quinoa can also be used as a rotational crop, but most producers use it as a major crop, he said.
With about 24,000 acres, the U.S. accounts for less than 10 percent of world production. Bolivia is the largest quinoa producer, growing about half the world's supply. Farmers there have more than doubled quinoa production in the last three years.
Quinoa is highly nutritious. It has protein, essential amino acids -- rare for a grain, Walters said -- and is gluten-free.
As more people become aware of its nutritional characteristics, quinoa is quickly gaining the attention of consumers.
Demand for quinoa is "huge," particularly in foodie-centric cities such as Seattle and Portland, WSU associate professor Kevin Murphy said.
"Demand is not being met," he said. "Bolivian, Ecuadorian and Peruvian growers cannot keep up with what we need up here. There have been quite a few calls for locally grown quinoa."
Murphy is leading the research effort to breed quinoa varieties for production in the Pacific Northwest.
In 2012, Murphy received $1.6 million from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The team of researchers includes WSU Extension, Oregon State University, Brigham Young University and Utah State University, as well as international members.
Agronomists are interested because of the plant's ability to thrive with few inputs and in dry environments.
"As we're facing more challenging conditions for agriculture worldwide, this really stands out," Peterson said.
Over the years, it's also been grown or tested in such far-flung countries as Australia, China, England, Finland, Morocco and Vietnam.
In a tropical zone near the Equator, a Bolivian variety might work best, Peterson said. In a more temperate zone, Peruvian seed might work best. In the Pacific Northwest, researchers are working with varieties from Chile, which has a similar climate.
Peterson cautions Northwest growers not to plant quinoa from cooperatives or health food stores, because it's likely imported from Bolivia or Peru and won't produce seed in the region's climate.
As demand for quinoa increases across the globe, the price has also increased. Bojanic said a ton of quinoa that sold for less than $70 a decade ago is now worth more than $2,000 and may continue to increase.
"Which becomes a problem because we want to promote it among poor people and they cannot have access to it," he said.
The key is increasing demand and production at the same time, so that prices will be affordable to low-income consumers, he said.
In Australia, France and the United States, most production is high-tech, Bojanic said. But in Bolivia and Peru, the low-tech farming methods mean lower yields, less than 1,000 pounds per acre.
"It can really be enhanced if the right technology is put in place," he said.
There are also difficulties in promoting quinoa to farmers worldwide, like those who might plant it in Africa or Asia. It's not easy to obtain seeds for demonstration, as the crop is still under development for export. The FAO is working on intellectual property rights for the crop, Bojanic said.
The FAO is cooperating with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, an international community of researchers, to help develop technologies and varieties for quinoa production.
At WSU, Murphy advises growers to proceed with caution, noting there are still many unknowns to quinoa. In August, Murphy will lead a quinoa symposium in Pullman, Wash.
Walters is studying irrigation rates and mixing different crops with quinoa. She is looking for varieties that will grow well in the Pacific Northwest, and different ways to increase soil fertility and quinoa's yield potential.
She expects it will eventually be grown on a larger scale, although adaptation still requires a lot of work.
"Heat tolerance is the big one -- it doesn't like heat at all, especially at lower elevations," she said.
Researchers are also looking for a way to efficiently remove saponin, a soapy outer covering, from the seed. Ernie New, a farmer in southcentral Colorado, uses a dry polish to remove the saponin.
Peterson is studying quinoa's tolerance of salinity and its nitrogen efficiency. He is also making crosses between the best performing varieties in the field, growing offspring in the WSU greenhouse.
Peterson believes quinoa will ultimately be best suited for regions with cooler summers.
"Quinoa is a surprising plant," he said. "I think it will surprise us as we work with it and try things with it."