Andean Superfood Lost in Quinoa Craze as Orphan Crop

In the bright sunshine of Bolivia’s Altiplano plateau, 72-year-old Justo Herrera yanks a knee-high stalk of canahua out of the ground as he rushes to complete the harvest before another frost.

“Thirty grams of canahua, a spoonful of sugar, and some lemon, and you don’t feel hungry,” Herrera said. “It’s pure vitamins.”

Indeed, the high-power varieties Herrera has been growing since he was a boy are both remarkably nutritious and perfectly suited to the Andean highlands climate.

They are also at risk of disappearing.

A cousin, quinoa, is gaining favor with young farmers in the region eager to supply Trader Joe’s Co., Whole Foods Market Inc. and other trendy grocers that stock the grain alongside couscous and basmati rice.

Though a superfood in its own right, quinoa isn’t as well adapted to changing heat and rainfall patterns as canahua -- a concern as climate shifts turn the tables on farmers and consumers. As planters such as Herrera age, his know-how in growing the nutritious, frost-resistant grain may be lost, along with the local varieties he cultivates. This would leave Bolivians with one less way to feed themselves as the weather gets more volatile.

Orphan Crop

Canahua is an “orphan crop”: a plant that receives little research or market attention compared with agribusiness mainstays, such as soybeans. The result is a loss of widespread cultivation as high-nutrient crops well-adapted to local growing conditions suffer from neglect, said Allen Van Deynze, a plant scientist at the University of California-Davis.

About 20,000 edible plants exist worldwide. Fewer than 20 of them provide 90 percent of all food, according to U.K.-based Plants For a Future. Many of the remaining plants hold promise for adaptation in a changing climate, said Van Deynze, who helped found the UC-Davis African Plant Breeding Academy in Nairobi, Kenya, part of an orphan-crops consortium that includes the African Union and Mars Inc.

“These crops are important for food security and are critical for large numbers of people, but they don’t create significant revenues or profits that can be put into the improvement of that crop,” said Paul Anderson, executive director for the Institute for International Crop Improvement at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis.

Crop Research

Research dollars for orphan crops are difficult to track because by definition they don’t receive much money.

A major agribusiness such as Monsanto Co. or DuPont Co., the world’s top-two seed breeders, “will have 10 to 15 corn breeders alone,” Van Deynze said. “Multiply that by five companies, and you have 75 people working on corn, while we’ll have half-a-researcher per crop,” he said.

One group that is involved in canahua is the Proinpa Foundation, which seeks to alleviate poverty through agricultural development in Bolivia. Its agronomists are working with growers like Herrera to increase canahua production and quality.

Herrera attended a workshop the group hosted, and says he came away with the idea that he should lay the harvested plants on a sheet of plastic to keep the grains out of contact with soil -- something that he said he intends to try.

To understand canahua (pronounced “kan-ya’wa”), it helps to know quinoa (“keen’wa”).

Exports Quadruple

The darling of health-conscious consumers and a boon to small farmers in South America’s Andes Mountains, quinoa was called the “mother grain” by the ancient Incas. The United Nations declared 2013 the International Year of Quinoa. As western consumers have discovered it and raved about its high nutritional value and versatility, sales have boomed.

Exports nearly quadrupled from 1990 to 2011, according to UN data, with Bolivia responsible for almost all shipments. While this has been disruptive to local markets, as demand makes the grain more costly, it’s given farmers a suddenly lucrative cash crop.

Canahua, a crunchier, less bitter grain dubbed “baby quinoa” because its seeds are smaller, is a superfood in its own right. Gluten-free like quinoa, it has half the fat content and more protein. It is often used to enhance the flavor of other foods, or made into flour for breads and pastries.

Before Europeans colonized the Andes and introduced dairy products, high-calcium canahua was used to wean infants from mothers’ milk.

Perhaps more importantly long-term, it resists extreme weather, which will become key for farmers and consumers in the coming decades, said Stefano Padulosi, a senior scientist at Biodiversity International in Rome.

Hardier Plants

If temperatures rise about 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2050, Bolivian rainfall could drop 19 percent, while weather would get more volatile during the growing season, according to a 2010 World Bank study. While other scenarios described by the bank paint a rosier picture, hardier plants able to withstand greater variation of temperature and moisture will be needed under any case.

Grown at more than 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level in a region prone to unpredictable frosts, canahua provides vitamins and minerals in short supply to local residents -- its high iron content compensates for the effects of living at high altitude, helping to make red bloods cells that carry oxygen through the body. Farmers also grow quinoa in the region, though results are mixed because of the conditions.

Season Disrupted

About 20 kilometers southwest of Justo Herrera’s plot, dying quinoa plants stand on a plain exposed to the cold fall temperatures. The crops’ leaves are withered and the grains have dried. Canahua growing in an adjacent section of the field has fared better and the grains are still fit for consumption.

As weather changes disrupt growing seasons, some farmers reliant on quinoa will need an alternative. Canahua fits the bill, Padulosi said -- as long as it’s commercially viable.

“We need to make biodiversity more attractive in the marketplace because these crops can’t just be conserved” in a seed bank, he said. “They have to be used so they can develop further.”

Viability is the struggle of orphans.

While the quinoa boom is well-documented, canahua isn’t tracked in UN or Bolivian government data. In neighboring Peru, acreage has stalled at around 7,000 hectares (about 17,000 acres) for two decades, while quinoa sowings have doubled to more than 56,605 hectares in the past 10 years.

‘Biodiversity’ Attractive

South America’s urban consumers associate the smaller grain with less-affluent indigenous peoples, making it less popular. Farmers who can grow both crops tend to shun canahua in favor of exportable quinoa, which is easier to harvest, has double the yield and can fetch four times the price.

The harvest and yield problems could be reduced with adequate research, said Alejandro Bonifacio, a quinoa and canahua crop-breeder and geneticist with Proinpa.

Canahua is “the orphan of all orphans,” said Bonifacio, who works with the crop in his spare time, experimenting to find varieties that yield better and have shorter growing cycles -- both of which would make it better for farmers and more resilient to the climate.

“It’s a crop that deserves attention,” he said. “Canahua is one of the crops better prepared for climate change.”

Working his three plots in the Andes, Herrera is doing his part to preserve canahua. He’s been at it for four decades, keeping some of the grain for his family and selling the rest to neighbors or feeding it to his chickens.

“I’ve got tons of it,” he said. “I’ve not had any other job. It’s in my genes.”

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