Mountains better in Latin America
Growing high on the Andean plateau at altitudes of over 4000 metres, crops such as quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) and yacon (Smallanthus sonchifolius) are amazing survivors. Yet despite their strengths, they have been largely neglected by crop improvement programmes because of a negative association with indigenous communities. In the highlands of Bolivia, for example, the 'super grain' quinoa is an excellent source of essential amino acids, protein and iron. Boiled, or pounded into flour, it plays a vital role in Andean communities, among whom malnutrition is high. But quinoa has never been developed or improved by local research programmes, unlike non-indigenous food crops such as wheat.
Biodiversity International (previously the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute - IPGRI), estimates that only 150 of the world's plant species are currently grown commercially. The organisation is promoting the cultivation of many others - from some 7000 options - in order to encourage local biodiversity and improve diets. At the Brigham Young University in the USA a combined project, with Bolivian scientists and the Foundation for Promotion and Investigation of Andean Products (PROINPA), is using DNA sequencing to isolate and map genetic markers in quinoa for traits such as disease resistance, for developing improved varieties. The process involves taking two varieties with complementary traits, and crossing them to produce a potentially enhanced plant variety.
Modern plant breeding and genetic techniques are faster than traditional breeding, and produce genetically superior, hardy varieties of quinoa. Subsistence farmers in Bolivia who have cultivated these improved varieties have reported double and even triple yields. This has increased the availability of the crop to local communities, and reduced dependency on coca production, a popular alternative in the face of hardship. The grain has also been promoted in schools, which are now demanding up to 120 tonnes of quinoa flour every year to use in breakfast meals. Government-funded programmes are also providing roughly 30,000 nursing mothers with three kilograms of quinoa every month.
A hidden treasure in Peru
It is reported that yacon, another neglected native plant of the Andes, was eaten as a thirst quencher by Inca chasquis, or messengers, as they plied the winding mountain tracks. The sweet root contains mostly water and while it is not a staple crop - being non calorific, poor in proteins and other nutrients - it is very high in natural sugars. Cultivated as a subsistence crop in parts of the Andean region, most people, however, know little about yacon, or how to use it. But in Peru, the world's leading producer, recognition of the crop's nutritional qualities has prompted a move from small-scale farms to supermarket shelves. Over half of the dry matter in the roots is made up of oligofructose (OF), a low calorie sugar which is not digested and does not elevate blood sugar levels, making it ideal for use in health and diabetic foods. The sugars are also reported to maintain a healthy gut.
Traditionally, subsistence farmers in Peru have grown yacon only in small quantities to eat as a fresh fruit. But small entrepeneurs have been working with small-scale farmers to produce a variety of local foodstuffs. Since 2003, yacon syrups, juice, marmalade and tea leaves have all appeared on supermarket shelves in Peru and Japan. Demand for more information about these products suggests that interest is also spreading to the USA and beyond.
To market, to market
Although most yacon production is small-scale, demand is increasing, especially in the low fat and health food markets. But success is not yet worldwide. Yacon cannot be sold in Europe due to strict EU regulations, and future growth of the speciality crop will also depend on sufficient proof of health claims.
Although the popularity of these specialised crops is slowly rising, much more needs to be done to raise awareness of the value of these 'neglected crops'; especially at policy level and outside the region. In the meantime, organisations such as PROINPA and the International Potato Center (CIP) continue to test and promote the value of quinoa, yacon and other similar crops in boosting nutrition in poor communities. These indigenous crops may survive high altitudes, but whether they can survive the market place is a different matter.
Date published: January 2007
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