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Quinoa Farmers Increase Yields Using Nuclear-Derived Farming Practices

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Once considered an orphan crop, the high-Andes grain “quinoa” has emerged from insignificance thanks to its well-deserved reputation for high nutritional value. Yet, this proteinpacked grain also has a reputation for low productivity – which is not surprising, considering it often grows in harsh climates and terrains at elevations of several thousand metres. However, now, with results that have emerged from a Joint FAO/IAEA Division study that combines three different technologies, quinoa productivity can almost triple.

Although it was domesticated five millennia ago, quinoa is one of those foods that was practically unknown outside of Peruvian highlands until very recently when nutrition-conscious consumers learned of its richness in proteins, amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. Once providing sustenance to the Inca civilization that flourished there in the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, it was chosen as a food for NASA astronauts on space journeys in the twentieth century, and the United Nations declared 2013 the Year of Quinoa.

While all of this recognition is certainly positive, today’s quinoa production also faces a harsh reality in terms of the frequent droughts, soil salinity, frost, hail, wind, flooding and abiotic stress present in the Peruvian Andes that add up to reduce its productivity. Because of both increased consumer demand and the importance of quinoa in the local diets, increasing production and yield stability have been identified as important challenges in addressing food security concerns across the Andean region.

In responding to this need, the Joint FAO/IAEA Division, working with Programa de Cereals y Granos Nativos, Universidad Nacional Agraria de LaMolina, Lima, Peru, developed an approach that incorporates three technologies: mutation breeding, isotope tracing and water control using a water-absorbing polymer. The study evaluated 63 improved quinoa lines in farmers’ fields, specifically looking for their response to water and fertilizer. It also used nitrogen-15 stable isotope
tracers to evaluate the optimum dose of nitrogen fertilizer needed to increase quinoa yields. And finally, it introduced the water-absorbing polymer, a foam product placed below the soil surface to keep water from running off the steep fields. The material soaks up rainwater, reserving it for the plant and, when the nitrogen fertilizer is applied, the uptake can be higher and, in turn, so the yield.

Techniques to improve quinoa production protect the environment

When combined, these technologies also protect the environment by holding the water, avoiding run off, and retaining the fertilizer so that it will not be washed away with rains and end up in water supplies or other places where it is not needed and its presence can be hazardous. The goal is for the plants to absorb most of the applied fertilizer to minimise leaching below the plant roots or being converted to greenhouse gas. There is also a financial saving for the farmer who needs to buy less fertilizer but still has a higher yield.

In this study, nuclear techniques were used to help define good management practices. Water-absorbing materials are a new entry into this type of farming, and their introduction will require training in its application and follow-up monitoring with nitrogen-15 tracing technology to ensure the nitrogen is being utilized efficiently.

Andean farmers are definitely benefitting from introducing these management practices, developed by the Joint Division and the Universidad Nacional Agraria de LaMolina, into their fields. Thanks to the improved quinoa varieties and good soil and water management practices, they have seen an enormous increase in yield, from 1.1 to 3.1 tonnes per hectare and, at the same time, they have reduced their fertilizer purchases by 30 percent and seen a 40 percent water saving. Quinoa farmers have already applied the new management practices on more than 14 000 ha. Looking ahead, the Joint Division plans to introduce these interrelated technologies and new management practices to Mexico, which has similar issues with its quinoa cropping.

Through good breeding and good water and fertiliser management, quinoa has gone from being an orphan to being a potentially valuable crop. And by increasing its yield almost three-fold, it is also improving health and food security of the people who have nurtured its seeds across the millennia.

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