Contrary to common believe, quinoa may grow and harvest in different conditions: from the Andean highlands at 4,000 mts. and near salt flats, in the Andean valleys and even at sea level. Quinoa farmed at the lowlands of the Peruvian sea coast may reach yields of up to 2.3 to 3.0 metric tons (MT) per hectare, while in the Andean highlands of the Puno region, where quinoa is usually farmed, yields may only reach 0.8 to 1.2 MT., according to researcher Luz Gomez PhD. of the Peruvian National Agrarian University La Molina. As research director of the University’s cereal and Andean grains program, Dr. Gomez has been studying the different quinoa varieties grown in the Peruvian inter-Andean valleys and their capacity to adapt to the coastal low lands. The project has focused on genetic improvement, capacity building on good agricultural practices and innovative irrigation systems with salt water.
There are 1800 types of quinoa and in pre-colonial times it used to grow at different altitudes in the Andean region encompassing today Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile. But with the introduction of wheat and other crops from Europe, quinoa was reduced to grow only in marginalized fields in the highlands, usually where no other crop survives the strong sun, dry terrain and winds. “We identify two main groups of seeds in Peru: Those adapted for the highlands and those that perform well in the Andean valleys”, says Dr. Gomez. Bolivia has the Royal quinoa, which is well adapted to grow in the Uyuni salt flats; Chile has the sea level quinoas; and there are quinoas that grow in the “Yungas”, transition zones between the highlands and the jungle”. Today, and since the quinoa craze started most of the quinoa in Peru is grown in the Puno highlands, some around Cuzco and Arequipa. Commercial farming of quinoa in the coastal lower lands started about two years ago, but trials and research years ago, says Dr Gomez. Most of the quinoa grown in the highlands is supplied by small producers and even if not all is organic certified they tend to use farming methods that avoid synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. But the lower the area where quinoa grows, the potential for pests is higher. “There are no effective organic certified pesticides to treat quinoa; what farmers do is biological pest control”. Organic certified quinoa shows lower yields in her studies, around 30-50% less, than conventional or non-certified quinoa, according to Dr. Gomez. “Farmers that grow organic quinoa get even because of the higher price paid for it”.
Quinoa’s biodiversity has become undermined through the replacement of a wide range of traditional varieties by a narrow choice of commercially favored ones. The NGO CIRNMA (Research Center on Natural Resources and Environment) is supporting local producers in Peru and Bolivia to maintain not only the genetic resources but also the underlying socio-cultural mechanisms that help to sustain them (e.g. seed banks) as well as to keep and improve traditional knowledge. In coordination with Bioversity International 38 community based organizations from Bolivia and Peru were invited to take part in a pilot project to identify and conserve one or more endangered landraces identified on a priority list. To encourage the revival of other traditional varieties and ancestral cultivation techniques, a food security program with schools in Puno has started, where children learn about healthy eating and good cultivation practices of their local food resources.
Peru is the second quinoa producer after Bolivia and the world’s main consumer of this nutritious food. According to Promperu the export value of Peruvian organic quinoa increased from US$ 13,608.820 in 2010 to US$ 25,965.850 in 2011.
The quinoa boom as perfect super food has prompted farming the golden grain not only in the Andean highlands of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Chile and most recently Colombia, but also as far as Canada, the USA, Denmark and Australia. The “Mother Grain” has been highlighted by FAO as one of the promising crops for humanity not only for its large beneficial properties and its many uses, but also as an alternative to solve the serious problems of human nutrition and a tribute will be offered during 2013, the Intl. Year of Quinoa.