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Saturday, March 7, 2015
- Brazil saw its first commercial harvest last month of quinoa, a protein-rich seed from the Andes mountain region whose consumption and cultivation researchers are keen on promoting in Brazil
Quinoa, which is not actually a true cereal, has been grown by the Indians in the altiplano of Bolivia and Peru since at least 3,000 BC. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) describes it as virtually a ”perfect food” due to its excellent nutritional qualities and hardiness.
Quinoa thrives with low rainfall, high altitudes, thin, cold air, hot sun, subfreezing temperatures, and even poor, sandy, alkaline soil. It is resistant to frost, drought and pests. The ancient Incas called it ”the mother grain.”
But in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, efforts to bolster respect for what is the main food crop of indigenous people in some remote highlands areas have run into difficulties. Quinoa, which was largely eclipsed by wheat and rice among the broader population after the Spanish conquest, is disdained by urban-dwellers as a ”poor man’s food.”
Brazil’s first commercial harvest of quinoa provided a yield of 1.6 tons per hectare last month on the Riedi agribusiness establishment, near the capital, Brasilia.
But the crop was harvested early, and yields of up to 2.5 tons per hectare are possible under better conditions, Riedi manager Francisco Luçardo told IPS.
Another advantage of quinoa is that the costs of growing it are low, since only eight kgs of seeds are needed to plant an entire hectare, compared to 150 kgs of wheat, and agrochemicals are not needed because quinoa is naturally resistant to insects.
The small seeds of the quinoa plant, a broad-leafed annual herb or ”pigweed” that belongs to the Chenopodium family, look like a cross between sesame seeds and millet.
Compared to other grains and vegetables, they have a high oil content, are rich in protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, niacin, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin E, and several B vitamins, high in fiber and the amino acid lysine, and low in sodium.
The spinach-like leaves, which are rich in vitamin A, can also be eaten, in salads or cooked like spinach.
The seeds, which have a nutty flavour, can be prepared whole, like rice, or made into flour for bread and biscuits. The flour also blends well with wheat flour or cornmeal. The seeds or flour can be used in soups, pasta, puffed cereals, desserts and side dishes.
In addition, the plant, which can grow as tall as 2.5 metres, serves as excellent animal fodder, especially since it is rich in methionine, an amino acid essential to the production of milk.
Luçardo said output will increase if there is demand. But to bring that about, Brazilians, who are unfamiliar with quinoa, must first be made aware of its desireable properties.
Brazil’s first planting of quinoa, which is known as a ”pseudo- cereal” or ”pseudo-oilseed”, was the result of ”curiosity,” Luçardo explained.
But it has awakened the interest of other farmers and ranchers, who bought two-thirds of the yield. Getting quinoa accepted by stockbreeders is perhaps the best prospect for developing a market for it in Brazil, he said.
The plant was introduced in this South American country of 170 million due to the enthusiasm of Carlos Spehar, an agronomist at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA), a state entity that links 40 research centres, each of which specialises in different kinds of agricultural production and ecosystems.
Spehar first came into contact with quinoa in the 1970s, when he was in the United States doing graduate studies in plant genetics.
In 1989, when he was carrying out his doctoral research on soybeans in Britain, Spehar was given some quinoa seeds by a Peruvian colleague.
Since then, he has expanded his genetic database each time he has visited the countries of the Andean region, generally to take part in academic conferences. On his own initiative, he has worked long and hard at making it feasible to plant the highly nutritious and adaptable crop in Brazil.
Quinoa seeds must be processed to remove their bitter-tasting coating of the glycoside saponin, a toxic resin-like substance that is removed by washing or dry polishing.
But Spehar explained to IPS that through a process of genetic selection, he obtained a plant whose seeds can be consumed without washing, which makes it more attractive for growing on a large- scale.
Spehar is a researcher in the Cerrados unit of EMBRAPA, located in Planaltina, near Brasilia, which focuses on adapting crops to enable them to be grown in the poor, dry soil of central Brazil.
Land in that region was considered unsuited to agriculture three decades ago. But today the area boasts the country’s greatest production of soybeans, while coffee and other crops are expanding.
The Cerrados unit of EMBRAPA will distribute genetically enhanced quinoa seeds and publicise the advantages of the new crop, Spehar announced.
In southern Brazil, the new genetically improved variety of quinoa was found to be tolerant of temperatures as low as two degrees below zero.
Thanks to its enormous adaptability and in response to growing demand from consumers in the industrialised North, who have been sold on the nutritional qualities of quinoa, the Andean crop is now grown in many countries of Africa and Asia, as well as Europe and the United States.
The crop has a great future in Brazil, said Spehar, if the public is made aware of its nutritional value, and if its consumption by both humans and animals is popularised.
Quinoa has more protein than cereal grains. With further genetic improvements, it could contain as much as 20 percent protein. ”That is less than soy offers in quantity, but it outdoes soy in terms of the quality of the protein,” said Spehar. Its composition of essential amino acids is similar to that of milk, according to nutritional studies.
The plant is easy to grow, and the low costs involved and potential high returns on small plots of land could make the crop a good alternative for small family farms. It is also suitable for organic production, since pesticides are not needed, Spehar pointed out.
The researcher is also trying to introduce amaranth into Brazil, another plant whose tiny seeds have nutritional qualities similar to those of quinoa. The cultivation of amaranth was supressed in Mexico after the Spanish conquest.
Amaranth is also excellent for animal feed, and can be consumed by people as a breakfast cereal, cooked like rice, used in salads, or ground up as flour.