Improving an Ancient Grain and Preserving a Way of Life


Bolivian boy in front of quinoa plants
A Bolivian boy stands in front of quinoa plants, native to the Andes. A BYU team is researching this ancient grain which has remarkable nutritional qualities, but receives little attention from world agricultural researchers.

Across the Bolivian Altiplano (high plateau) in the Andes Mountains, nearly half of the native people consider the crop quinoa (kee'-noa) their staff of life. The grain has such traditional significance that they still sing and dance around it in ritual.

Quinoa has been largely viewed as "poor man's food" throughout urban Latin America. Its reputation is not helped by scanty yields under conditions of salty soil, cold dry air, and frosts. The harvest of many Andean villagers is insufficient to sustain their families. Ironically, outside the Altiplano, quinoa is becoming recognized as the single most wholesome grain under cultivation anywhere, and is showing up in international health and gourmet food markets. It is high in protein, with a near perfect composition of amino acids, and a strong compliment of carbohydrates.

For almost 20 years, BYU faculty and students have been working to improve quinoa in its native setting. Currently fourteen Bolivian scientists are teamed with eight BYU professors and over fifty BYU students in the work. BYU first focused on quinoa in the late 1980s when Dr. Laren Robison, professor emeritus and then director of the Benson Institute, realized the need for help with the crop in Bolivia. Geneticist Dr. Daniel Fairbanks currently leads the BYU team.

"A question has been where does agriculture fit at BYU?" Fairbanks said. "And we realized that if we looked at BYU's motto, 'The World is Our Campus,' we ought to be into international agriculture, working with the most pervasive problem worldwide... persistent hunger and poverty."

In the late nineties Fairbanks and colleagues sought funding to expand BYU's quinoa efforts. "Our proposal caught the eye of the McKnight Foundation in Minnesota," said Professor Craig Coleman. "McKnight wanted to create a partnership between scientists in developing countries and the United States. Since we already had partners (BYU graduates) in Bolivia, we had a leg up," he said. McKnight provided $880,000 in assistance. The Doug Holmes family of Farmington, Utah has also given generous support, and BYU has provided numerous student research grants.

BYU's key Bolivian partner is Dr. Alejandro Bonifacio (MS, PhD from BYU) who has dedicated his career to quinoa improvement in his country. Bonifacio is currently a plant breeder with PROINPA (Foundation for the Research, Promotion and Investigation of Andean Products) which holds the largest collection of quinoa varieties in the world (approximately 3,000), and has released several improved varieties already in use by farmers.

Bolivian dish that includes QuinoaBolivian farmersMilly Boyce, McKell Dilg and James Daley collect quinoa seed in a BYU Greenhouse
1) A tasty Bolivian dish is prepared from boiled quinoa and vegetables. 2) Bolivian farmers separate jipi (chaff) from quinoa seed in the arid Altiplano. 3) McKell Dilg (center), a senior, leads a student team to identify ancestors of quinoa by sequencing ribosomal RNA genes. Milly Boyce and James Daley help Dilg collect quinoa seed in a BYU Greenhouse.

Using DNA markers, the BYU/ PROINPA team are evaluating the PROINPA collection. They have identified about 200 key varieties, plus some of the genes responsible for early flowering, salt tolerance, and high nutritional value. "We have a two-fold purpose," Coleman said. "We're training students and we're helping people in an impoverished part of the world."

"As students, we're having a oneof-a-kind, real-world experience," said Milly Boyce, a junior from Anchorage, Alaska.

"Because only limited research has been published about the grain, we also have a great opportunity to be published in a scholarly journal," said senior McKell Dilg of Brigham City, Utah.

Professor Mikel Stevens pointed out an interesting aspect of the project. "Our team focuses our techniques toward technology comparable to what PROINPA has in Bolivia," he said. "We have tools here that would work faster and better, but since they don't have access to them down there, we don't use them," he explained. "But it doesn't feel like a handicap," Stevens said. "All of us have worked on several projects, but we've never had quite the success that we've enjoyed with this one."

"When the Bolivian temple was dedicated, President Hinckley asked the Lord to bless the children of Lehi, to lift them from the shackles of poverty and give them the education that would improve their lives." Coleman said. "It feels like we're helping to bring about that blessing."  

Reaching Yet Further
Colorful Kañawa
BYU is studying several promising relatives of quinoa such as colorful Kañawa, growing here in Bolivian seed evaluation trials (with taller quinoa in the background).

The BYU quinoa team is branching out to help in other countries. Through the Benson Institute’s project in Morocco quinoa has been introduced to farmers in the Middle Atlas Mountains. "It's very well adapted there," said Professor Eric Jellen. "The women have found ways to incorporate it into their cuisine, and they have a cash market for everything they produce."

Closely-related to quinoa is amaranth, a weedy cousin that was also studied by Dr. Robison. Amaranth has similar nutritional qualities as quinoa and holds promise as a staple crop in the low- and intermediate-altitude tropics. The Benson Institute recently provided funding for the BYU team to reinitiate advanced genetic research on this crop involving farmers in northern Ecuador. In November 2005 BYU joined scientists from five other American universities in a $5.3 million National Science Foundation proposal to map the amaranth genome. In December 2005 three members of the BYU team were invited to visit Mexico, where they met with researchers at state and national universities about developing a collaborative amaranth and huauzontle (native Mexican quinoa) research program in that country.