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Quinoa, a Success Worth Cultivating

Although the nutritious plant quinoa has become Bolivia's most popular crop choice in recent years, it continues to raise a number of ecological and social issues. French researchers have been working in the country on making the crop sustainable.


© T. Winkel/IRD

Growing quinoa has helped many Bolivian families avoid moving to cities for work.


The view is breathtaking. On this crisp May morning, the scientists have reached an altitude of 3800 meters in the Bolivian section of the Andes. They stare at the red tinged landscape all around them. The treasure they are admiring is quinoa,1 a plant resembling a cereal that is exceptionally nutritious and currently the flavor of the month among “organic products” on fair trade retail stands all over the world. It is especially popular in France, the biggest European consumer. But these scientists have not climbed all this way up to the Altiplano plateaus (where most Bolivians live) just to admire the latest star of organic food. They are here to help local producers cope with the sudden surge in popularity of this crop and make it truly sustainable, mainly by enabling farmers to select the best varieties.

Among them, Richard Joffre, senior researcher at the Functional and Evolutive Ecological Center (CEFE),2 is there to present the first findings of a project carried out jointly by the Dream3 team from CEFE in Montpellier and the Clifa4 team working in La Paz. These researchers have been looking at the nutritional qualities of quinoa seeds since June 2005, based on their genotype and cultivation methods. Not an easy task, as there are dozens of varieties and as many different ways of growing the crop. The scientific team patiently collected more than 2500 samples of crops in Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile and is currently creating a database that will hold essential information on each variety.

To analyze the crops, scientists are using near-infrared spectrometry. “It sends back a single signal for each sample, its biochemical identity card, protein content, and other organic components,” explains Joffre. In their “sieves,” the researchers track the variability of the nutritional (amino acids, fatty acids, etc.) and toxic (saponins) elements. When completed, the database will help farmers make the best selection from all the varieties available. That choice will necessarily be a compromise: “A variety can have excellent nutritional qualities but be fragile in terms of its resistance to the climate, which is pretty harsh in this region,” says Joffre. “The area has roughly 250 days of frost that are completely unpredictable.” Add the impact of climate change, particularly visible in the Andes, and you begin to see how important it is for crop growers to have reliable data at their disposal.

There are also economic and social stakes involved in quinoa research, and the team would like to extend their work to include all these aspects. Their long-term goal is “to enable farmers and local decision-makers to achieve sustainability in the cultivation of quinoa, as it has moved in a very short period of time from a subsistence crop to a successful export crop,” says Thierry Winkel, a researcher with the Clifa team who has been stationed in La Paz for the past five years.

On the upside, this rapid mutation has generated substantial profits for crop growers and curbed family migration to nearby cities, as they no longer have to look for work. But there is also a downside. This increase in activity is not always well controlled and has already led to permanent soil impoverishment in some plots, mainly through the use of tractors too heavy for the fragile and arid soil. Furthermore, “the success of the crop in Bolivia is having a negative impact on llama, alpaca, and sheep breeders,” Winkel adds. “Quinoa has also created conflicts over land distribution between different village communities, and the traditional collective management systems are under pressure from more individualistic-minded members of the community. The end result is that inequalities have been exacerbated.” In other words, there is also an issue of “social sustainability.” To meet the challenge, a wide-ranging interdisciplinary research program is now in the works. Winkel is personally convinced that “whatever system is finally chosen, the solution has to be finding a new collective management system for natural resources.”


Matthieu Ravaud 

Notes :

1. Quinoa is from the Chenopodium family that became native to the Andes approximately 5000 years ago.
2. Centre d'écologie fonctionnelle et évolutive (CNRS / Universités de Montpellier-I, II, III / Ensa Montpellier / Cirad center joint lab).
3. Dynamique réactionnelle des écosystèmes, analyse spatiale et modélisation (Reactional dynamics of ecosystems, spatial analysis and modelization).
4. Climate and functioning of agro-ecosystems, IRD.

Contacts :

> Richard Joffre
CEFE, Montpellier.
> Thierry Winkel
IRD Clifa, La Paz, Bolivie.


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