Incan Quinua Grain Revived
By María Isabel García
This millenniums-old food crop is undergoing expansion in agricultural research and commercial production.
BOGOTA, (Tierramérica).- Quinua, the sacred grain domesticated some 8,000 years ago by the Incas of South America's Andean high plains, is gaining newfound appreciation through the research of institutes in the Andean countries and commercial production in Brazil.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) considers quinua "the perfect food". Although it is neither a cereal nor a legume, it is highly nutritious, easily adapts to poor soils and tolerates drought and freezing.
Sought after by consumers of the industrialized world who prefer organically produced food, quinua contains 16 amino acids -- the building blocks of protein -- which have won fame for the grain as a healing agent, anti-inflammatory, analgesic and disinfectant.
Although for centuries the elite have scorned it as "the food of the poor", the plant is awakening interest throughout the Andean sub-region, particularly Bolivia, Ecuador Peru and Colombia, where only 40 known varieties can still be found.
Peru's National Agricultural Research Institute is conducting 24 different quinua studies at five research stations, which are located in the southern departments of Puno, Huancayo, Cuzco and Ayacucho, and in the northern department of Cajamarca, Mario Tapia, head of Andean grain research at the Institute, told Tierramérica.
Tapia said that germplasm (seeds, cuttings and entire plants) have been collected of the different varieties, and classified according to grain yield, tolerance to pests, traits of the grain itself, and even cooking time.
Using this and other information, the Institute is working, using traditional hybridization techniques, to adapt quinua to different climates, particularly to elevations below 3,200 m above sea level, the plant's natural home.
Also working to genetically improve quinua in Peru are the National Agrarian University (UNA) and the High Plains (Altiplano) University, in Puno, conducting cutting-edge research with the support of international aid programs.
UNA has collected and assessed 1,276 quinua samples to identify yield, resistance, maturation rate, grain size and other traits. The university has developed its own variety of quinua, La Molina 98, which is highly resistant to pests and produces a high quality grain.
Progress is being made on a series of varieties that are promising for commercial production.
In Colombia, the National University is spearheading a quinua production program aimed at supplying, by mid-2003, the food supplement manufacturers that provide for the children's homes operated by the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare.
Unlike cereals, quinua does not contain gluten, and its high protein content and lack of cholesterol makes it an excellent substitute for meat.
Even the U.S. space agency, NASA, recognizes its nutritional wealth, including quinua in the basic diet of its astronauts.
Alongside potatoes and maize, quinua was historically grown in large fields by the Andean indigenous peoples. But after the arrival of the Spaniards in the Americas and throughout the colonial period, quinua was replaced by wheat, barley and rice.
Its historic past includes use as a palliative against smallpox, a disease brought by the Europeans, and as an important part of the landscape, daily life and in ritual ceremonies.
"The quinua seed comes in as many different colors as maize. There is white, yellow, purple, red and ash-colored, as well as wild and domesticated quinua," recounted Catholic priest and chronicler Bernabé Cobo, in the "History of the New World" in the 1600s.
Felipe Cárdenas, homeopath expert and anthropologist, said in a conversation with Tierramérica that in Colombia, "where it was planted as an important crop until 1820, memory of quinua was lost within a generation. By 1900 it had been forgotten."
"Our aristocracies and local oligarchies scorned quinua as a food of Indians and the poor," said Cárdenas, who developed a program to reintroduce quinua cultivation in the central Colombian department of Boyacá.
But the winds of oblivion are changing. Even in Brazil, where quinua is not a historic food source and is still unknown to consumers, the first commercial crop was harvested this year at the Riedi farm near Brasilia, with yields of 1.6 tons per hectare.
Riedi manager Francisco Luçardo explained to Tierramérica that it was an early harvest, but in normal conditions the quinua fields there are projected to produce as much as 2.5 tons per hectare.
The introduction of quinua in Brazil is due in large part to the enthusiasm of Carlos Spehar, an agronomist with the governmental Brazilian Enterprise for Agricultural Research (EMBRAPA).
Spehar obtained his first quinua seeds from a Peruvian colleague when he was completing his doctorate in soy research in Britain. Today, after the first commercial harvest, the Andean plant is appearing as an important source of food for the human population and of forage for livestock.
* María Isabel García is an IPS contributor. IPS correspondents Abraham Lama (Peru) and Mario Osava (Brazil) contributed to this report.