Quinoa (pronounced KEEN WA) is an ancient food crop of the Inca civilization that lived in the Andes mountains of South America three hundred years ago. In the Andes today, many farmers still grow quinoa because it is nutritious and tolerates harsh growing conditions. Quinoa is again becoming important in the Andes and in other parts of the world.
It is said that many centuries ago, the emperor of the Inca civilization in South America planted the first seed of quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) every year, using a spade of gold. The seed grew and multiplied and the Inca people prospered. Since then, the highland farmers of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina have continued to plant quinoa, the crop they call chisiya mama, or the “mother grain.”
Yet, some farmers forgot the importance of quinoa. The Spanish, who colonized Latin America, encouraged farmers to grow and eat barley and wheat. Today, farmers in the Andes are growing quinoa again because it is nutritious food for their families. In fact, quinoa contains more protein than most other grains including wheat, millet, rice, and corn. And the protein is high quality.
Farmers also like quinoa because the crop does well in difficult conditions. It can grow in less fertile or saline soil. It also tolerates drought, low temperatures (as low as 5 degrees Celsius), and short growing seasons typical of the highlands. It grows best at 2,500 to 4,000 metres above sea level. The productivity of quinoa is high. Quinoa grown in Bolivia can yield over 3000 kilos of grain per hectare! Let me explain more about this important crop called quinoa and how it is being grown and sold around the world.
Quinoa has broad leaves and large seedheads. The plant looks similar to sorghum. On its 1 – 2 metre high stalk, it has large green leaves that look like spinach. Quinoa seed contains protein. The leaves can be eaten as vegetables.
Quinoa seeds are usually white and are slightly smaller than rice grains. The seeds must be washed well or milled in order to remove seed coats. The seed coats must be removed because they contain bitter tasting substances called saponins which form a soapy substance in water. Removing the seed coats is a time consuming but necessary process. Once hulled, the grain can be boiled or toasted. Quinoa is a good substitute for rice or cassava. It can also be used in soups or ground into flour for cereals, breads and cakes, or used to make beer. In Bolivia, quinoa flour is made into porridge and is a nutritious food for young children.
The first thing farmers do before planting is make sure they have good seed. The seed should be the same colour and the grains clean and unbroken. For one hectare of land farmers need 7 to 15 kilos of quinoa seed.
Preparing the fields is also important. Like other crops, quinoa grows best when soil is kept free of weeds and has manure added. Once the soil has been cultivated and there has been a rain, the crop can be planted.
In the Andes, quinoa is usually planted by broadcasting the seed and then lightly raking it into the soil. The seedbed should be well drained. Sometimes, farmers plant quinoa by hoeing shallow rows, planting the seed in the rows, and lightly covering it with soil. Quinoa does not need to be deeply planted because the seeds germinate quickly. If the seeds are planted too deep, they become wet and die.
Quinoa seedlings grow quickly. Once they begin to grow, the fields should be kept clean of weeds. Farmers must remove any seedlings which appear weak or sick. The density of the seedlings should not be more than 10-12 plants per metre. If the rows are not thinned out the plants will not grow well.
Quinoa is not affected by many pests because of the bitter tasting substances in the seed coats. But you should still protect your crop. If a pest attack does occur, use commercial sprays or homemade sprays such as water mixed with soap and ground hot chili peppers on the plants.
Sometimes, while farmers wait for the harvest, food is scarce. Many farmers cook and eat the green quinoa leaves as vegetables. The leaves are high in protein and vitamins. They contain more vitamins A and E than spinach.
When the crop has matured the stalks will be thick, the seedheads will be large, and the seeds will be one colour. The quinoa crops must be cut and dried. In the Andes, farmers stand the stalks up against one another in the form of an arch. This helps the quinoa stalks to dry and seeds will not fall off.
Once the quinoa is dry it is put into small piles where farmers hit the stalks with sticks until the seed is loosened from the seedheads. The dry stalks can be stored and used as fodder for animals. The loose seed is then winnowed so that the seed is separated from small bits of leaves and stalks. When the seed has been sorted, and is well dried it is ready to be put into clean, dry sacks and placed in the granary.
Quinoa sells easily in local markets. More and more people in towns and cities want to buy quinoa because it is so nutritious. Today, quinoa is grown in other areas of the world. In the highlands of Cape Verde, farmers are pleased with their quinoa crop because it does well even in dry conditions. Quinoa is doing well in the Himalayas where the growing season is short and the cold weather comes early. In the densely populated highlands of Ethiopia and other areas of East Africa, quinoa produces more nutritious and greater amounts of grain than wheat or maize.
As you can see quinoa has some important uses in modern agriculture.
- This script was prepared by Helen Hambly Odame, Agroforestry Researcher. Her address is IDRC, Liaison House, State House Road, Nairobi, Kenya.
- Thanks for reviewing this script to:
- Barbara Macdonald, Researcher (food consumption and nutrition), Macdonald College, Ste. Anne de Bellevue, Quebec, Canada
- Scott Sherman, Assistant Director, Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization (ECHO), 17430 Durrance Rd., North Fort Myers, FL 33917, USA.
- El cultivo de la quinua (Quinoa cultivation), 27 pages, National Association of Quinoa Producers (ANAPQUI), Casilla 12649, La Paz, Bolivia in cooperation with GHANA, Centro de Educacion Popular, Casilla de Correo No. 9989, La Paz, Bolivia.
- Ing. Humberto Gandarillas, Instituto Boliviano de Tecnologia Agropecuaria, Casilla Postal 5783, La Paz, Bolivia.
- Lost crops of the Incas, National Research Council, 2101 Constitution Ave., NW, Washington, D.C. 20418, U.S.A.
- Seeds of Change, P.O. Box 15700, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87506 5700, U.S.A.
- White Mountain Farm, Mosca, Colorado 81146, U.S.A.
- Educational Concerns for Hunger Association (ECHO), 17430 Durrance Rd., North Fort Myers, FL 33917, U.S.A.
- ECHO will send a packet of seed free to development workers who work with farmers. For others the charge is $1.75 U.S. per seed packet.