Quinoa: a versatile grain with global potential

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Quinoa: a versatile grain with global potential

In part of a United Nations initiative to combat hunger, malnutrition and poverty, 2013 marks the International Year of Quinoa. This Andean grain offers broad agricultural potential, largely thanks to its adaptability to soil, climate and water conditions.

Solomón Salcedo outside of the FAO office in Santiago

Solomón Salcedo outside of the FAO office in Santiago

In conversation with www.freshfruitportal.com, Salomón Salcedo, policy officer for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), commented on the crop's potential in addressing food crises and the actions being undertaken this year to promote worldwide production.

Fight against hunger

From his office in Santiago, Chile, Salcedo explained that in Latin American and the Caribbean alone, there are almost 50 million people who suffer from hunger. Worldwide, the number reaches 870 million.

With a global growth rate that is expected to bring the population to 9 billion people by 2050, Salcedo explained that revenue, especially in Asian nations, is also expected to rise. This will push the demand for food even higher.

Climate change adds another complicating element, to top off the challenges of water and land availability.

"We are talking about huge challenges that we face to feed this growing population. This is where the potential for quinoa comes in, as much for its nutritional value as for its adaptation to extreme environments," he said.

"You can cultivate it from sea level up to 4,000 meters of elevation. It resists temperatures from -4°C up to 38°C. It withstands drought, freezes and soil salinity. It was a forgotten crop but for the past 50 years, it has started to gain recognition, leading up to the celebration of its international year."

For the FAO representative, this grain is essential for world food security, given its unique agricultural characteristics.

"No other product is known that has the resistance that quinoa has. There are crops that withstand  drought but they will never have the nutritional value of quinoa which can reach a protein level of 21%. Other grains have less than 11%. It has a lot of vitamins and minerals," he said.

"For its protein level, it can compete with other dietary staples like meat, milk and eggs."

Salcedo pointed out that the poorest populations tend to base their diets on carbohydrates, which have a low level of protein. Quinoa offers the possibility to turn such trends around.

"Countries like Bolivia, Peru and areas with low income like Haiti, Central America and Africa have a lot to do with quinoa," he said.

Promotional activities

According to Salcedo, one of the main objectives of the celebration is to inform countries of the grain's potential as a food security tool.

"We hope this will be the start to many medium- and long-term projects, in which we promote the crop and consumption," he said.

"The crop began to gain recognition in the 50s, and it began to expand to countries like Denmark, France, India and Morocco. Many countries have shown interest in experimenting with quinoa."

The FAO'S work this year focuses on informing, disseminating information, promoting the grain's benefits and highlighting its nutritional potential.

The FAO also has a budget to promote research, technology and marketing.

There are currently over 3,000 quinoa varieties worldwide. Each one adapts to a different climate, soil and has varying nutritional levels. This makes it important to know which variety will be a best fit to each planting location.

"We have received requests from other continents to begin adaptation testing for certain varieties. In developed countries, you don't need much promotion, since there is already knowledge and high demand. But there are countries where it is unknown," he said.

"Today in countries like Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, they are introducing quinoa to their school breakfast programs. You can find quinoa in many forms, like cereal, chips, drinks, rice, etc. In Brazil, quinoa is used as flour for bread. There is a lot of potential."

Even in the pharmaceutical industry, quinoa waste is used for its saponin. The chemical has applications for detergents, shampoo and makeup.

"Food for Indians"

A major reason that quinoa went unnoticed for many years, Salcedo explained, comes from Latin American colonization, when the conquistadores would write it off as "Indian food." At that time, the grain was a staple for many indigenous communities and some stopped producing the crop to avoid stigmatization.

Today, Bolivia and Peru are the top producers. Combined, they lead with a 90% production share. According to FAO, Peru produced 40,000 MT in 2009 and Bolivia produced 28,000 MT.  Ecuador followed with 756 MT.

"Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador export to Europe, Oceania and the U.S., but there are not official statistics. This is an area we're going to work on, since the available information isn't what we had hoped," he said.

In the Northern Hemisphere, the U.S. produces 3,000 MT and Canada produces between 30 and 1,000 MT  a year.

In Bolivia, there is an estimated 70,000 quinoa producers, 78.6% of whom produce for their own use. 19% produce for export and personal use and 2.4% produce exclusively for the market.

In Peru, there are around 60,000 producers in the mountainous region. 90% of Ecuador's quinoa producers also live in the mountainous zone, a poor region where the grain provides a vital source of sustenance.


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