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Buckwheat bucks the trend

A buckwheat field (Zhang Zongwen, Bioversity China)
A buckwheat field
Zhang Zongwen, Bioversity China

First domesticated on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, buckwheat is an ancient cereal, hardy and nutritious. Classed as a minor crop, but important for communities in the Himalayan foothills, farmers in the remote uplands of China are now heartened to know that the crop is back in fashion and can earn them a tidy income. "Buckwheat has always been important to farmers," says Zhang Zongwen, the Beijing-based scientist who co-ordinates the East Asian activities of Bioversity International, formerly known as the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI). "Now with new markets for the crop and a range of buckwheat products," he says, "farmers are getting involved in exciting participatory plant breeding that we hope will produce even better buckwheat in the future."

A win-win crop

More than 3000 varieties or landraces of buckwheat (Fagopyrum spp.) have so far been collected in China. The collection is testament to the popularity of the crop and the painstaking selection by generations of farmers for preferred characteristics that offer the taste and reliability they need. Not surprisingly perhaps, given the upland areas where it grows, farmers have selected for drought tolerance and early maturity. In times of drought, lowland farmers have also been able to rely on buckwheat, even when other crops fail. In many communities buckwheat is often referred to as 'a relief' crop. But there are limitations. Varieties tend to be low-yielding and many are temperature-sensitive. If the average temperature falls below five degrees Celsius before the crop is ripe the potential harvest is destroyed, as was the case in 2006, recalls Professor Zhang. "These days we seem to get sudden blasts of unexpected cold. In just a few days an abrupt change in the weather brought devastation to buckwheat crops across northwest and southwest China."

Making buckwheat better - in farmers' hands

Better yields, higher disease-resistance and improved tolerance of cold are the target for the teams of scientists charged with improving buckwheat varieties. In the laboratories of the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, molecular characterisation of buckwheat diversity is underway. But, according to Zhang, an important aspect of the work is that the varieties are being distributed to farmers so that in-situ selection may continue. "We work closely with our national partners to offer different choices to local communities. In Yunnan, at 4000 metres above sea level, you find farmers eager to be involved in selecting the varieties that best suit them," he says. In Shanxi province this co-operation between science and farmers was taken to new levels by a new buckwheat association. Linking trials, field-scale production, and demonstrating new ways to process the crop - and the profits to be made - has stimulated interest and revealed the workable options for each area.

Production, processing and policy

A girl gathers buckwheat (Bian Junsheng)
A girl gathers buckwheat
Bian Junsheng

Aside from increasing production, another pillar of Bioversity's work is to encourage the development of village-level processing facilities to add value to buckwheat. "Through this way of working we can link scientists, farmers, entrepreneurs and local officials. Every one of these is important but favourable local policies, which encourage new ways with old crops are essential," says Zhang. Buckwheat has some exciting new possibilities. It contains the chemical rutin which, taken as part of balanced diet, contributes to a reduction in high blood pressure and is helpful to those suffering with heart disease. Aside from its rising popularity as a new health food, there is also an increasing market for buckwheat noodles, cakes, and the bite-sized pieces known in northern China as 'cat's ears'.

Buckwheat the bulwark

Developments with buckwheat in China are being watched with interest. A popular crop, especially for minority communities in Nepal, northern India and Bhutan, it is also finding new niches, in Australia for example. For Zhang Zongwen of Bioversity it is the Chinese buckwheat that he has both a taste and high hopes for. Originally from a buckwheat-growing area, he knows firsthand how new opportunities for the crop will bring welcome income. "Farmers like buckwheat, they always have. Crops like wheat or maize or rice may give them dreams of high profits but, in the growing conditions of their farms, buckwheat is the crop that will give them money in their hands and food in their homes."

Date published: January 2007


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