Quinoa: Crop for the future

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 Salinization of soil and water, caused by inappropriate water management practices in agriculture, as well as by climate change-related impacts, poses a growing threat to the agricultural sector in many parts of the world. It makes continued cultivation of traditional crops difficult or impossible and calls for the introduction of new crops that are salt-tolerant, resilient to climate change, and nutritious.  An estimated 20 percent of irrigated lands worldwide are affected by salinity, with the affected area increasing by 2,000 ha per day. Increasing salinization of soil and water poses a grave threat to the agriculture sector, costing an estimated US$27.3 billion per year in lost productivity worldwide.

Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa Willd.) is a domesticated Andean edible seed crop, which can make an important contribution to food security and poverty reduction in developing countries with marginal environments and those adversely affected by climate change impacts, particularly increasing soil and water salinity, and water stress.

Quinoa is considered a superfood because it contains all eight essential amino acids needed for human health. In addition to being gluten free, the grain has a very high composition of crude proteins, ranging between 13 and 14 percent. It has more riboflavin, tocopherol, and carotenes than barley, rice or wheat, and also supplies more minerals, including Ca, Fe, K, Mg, Cu, Mn, and Cl. Quinoa’s seeds can be consumed in soups, drinks, salads and breakfast cereals, or ground to flour for the preparation of baked products. Stems and foliage can be used as animal feed, while uses for various components such as oil, starch and saponins are in the process of being developed for the benefit of chemical, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries.

Identified cultivars of quinoa are halophytes (i.e. salt-loving) and can be cultivated successfully in poor, saline soils. The most tolerant cultivars of quinoa are able to cope with the salinity levels of pure sea water. Quinoa is more water-efficient and drought-tolerant than most major crops, adapting well in environments with annual rainfall as little as 200 mm, relative humidity from 40% to 88%, and temperatures from -4 ° C to 38 ° C. The adaptability of quinoa to extreme conditions permits its cultivation in difficult environments where other crops are not usually grown, enabling the restoration of abandoned lands and granting access to available resources which will otherwise be lost. Moreover, quinoa is mainly a self-pollinated crop. Self-pollination eliminates the need for farmers to buy seeds for the next growing season, as they can rely on the harvested seeds for sowing. Among the many advantages that quinoa offers is also the fact that it sells for a higher price on international markets compared to major staple crops.

Quinoa offers a unique opportunity to rural farmers in marginal environments, as it can be grown on degraded lands where traditional cereal crops cannot thrive, and farmers can cultivate it in addition to – rather than as a substitute for – their traditional crops. As such, quinoa presents rural farmers with an opportunity to diversify and increase their overall crop production and, consequently, their sources of food and income. Quinoa’s superior nutritional qualities can address the problems of malnutrition and micro-nutrient deficiencies that are common in rural areas of most developing countries, while its status as a popular health food in developed countries also makes it a lucrative cash crop that farmers in the developing world can cultivate for export.  

 Quinoa can offer opportunities to farmers in marginal environments and those being adversely affected by climate change that few other crops can. It is a well-known fact that farmers in developing countries are generally averse to risk, meaning that they do not adopt new crops easily, because should such crops fail, they have limited or no alternative sources of income to rely on. Since quinoa can be grown on degraded lands where no other cereal crops can thrive, farmers can cultivate it in addition to their traditional crops rather than as a substitute for the latter. As such, quinoa presents farmers with an opportunity to diversify and increase their overall crop production and, consequently, sources of food and income. Quinoa’s superior nutritional qualities can address the problems of malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies that are common in rural areas of most developing countries, while its status as a popular health food in developed countries also makes it a lucrative cash crop that farmers in the developing world can cultivate for export. Last but not least, quinoa production provides farmers with an option for climate change adaptation and, when combined with sustainable farming practices that conserve and enhance the environment, options for climate change mitigation.    

However, despite the various benefits that quinoa offers and its growing global recognition, the constraints to its scaling up are considerable. These include limited availability of genetic material outside of its indigenous environment in the Andes. Access to a broad range of quinoa genetic diversity is an important prerequisite for quinoa improvement and the expansion of its cultivation in environments beyond the Andes. Investments in quinoa seed systems are therefore needed. However, because quinoa is mainly a self-pollinated crop and cultivated areas outside of South America are still limited, there is little incentive at present for the private sector to invest in quinoa improvement through breeding. Hence, efforts to develop an input supply system for quinoa production essentially depend on public funding and donor support.

Furthermore, given that quinoa is still relatively unknown beyond the Andes, rural institutions, organizations and farmers in other developing regions have limited or no knowledge and experience in its cultivation, harvesting, processing and overall management. The current demand for quinoa in these regions is also very limited: local consumers, particularly in rural areas, are largely unaware of the nutritional benefits of the crop and the ways to incorporate it in local dishes, while the potential to export locally produced quinoa to European and other countries may be limited in the short to medium term by food safety standards. 

To overcome the aforementioned constraints and take advantage of the existing opportunities, the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture, based in Dubai, proposes to implement a program that will introduce and/or increase quinoa cultivation in water-scarce and salt-affected environments in Africa and Asia, develop country-appropriate marketing strategies and promote quinoa consumption among poor rural communities. In doing so, the program will substantially improve food security and income of smallholder farmers living in marginal environments, contributing to two Sustainable Development Goals: SDG1 (No Poverty) and SDG2 (No Hunger).

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