Stefano Padulosi, Bioversity Research theme leader, Marketing Diversity, highlights the potential of neglected and underutilized species for food security, in this timely and personal account about eating quinoa cake in Bolivia. 2013 has been declared as the International Year of Quinoa by the United Nations.
I am lucky enough that I often travel to beautiful places as part of my job, and one such place that I get to visit regularly is Bolivia. But as I am based at Bioversity International HQ in Rome, it is quite a long haul. By the time I arrive in La Paz, the mixture of jet lag and altitude means I am ready for my ‘wake-up’ ritual. This entails a visit to Alexander coffee – a sort of Bolivian version of Starbucks – for coffee and a huge slice of delicious quinoa cake which makes all well with the world again.
I am not the first to appreciate the virtues of quinoa and I am sure I won’t be the last. Back in the 12th century, the Incas considered it such a sacred crop that the Emperor would sow the first seeds of the season using implements made of gold. The people in the Andean region have continued to cultivate it for centuries as an important source of protein and iron. Nevertheless in more recent times it has fallen out of fashion, becoming seen as ‘poor people’s food’, and abandoned in favour of more trendy staple crops. It is only over the last few years that the crop has started to be re-discovered in the context of its export to Europe and Japan where its nutritional qualities are being particularly appreciated.
But apart from this, quinoa is still a symbol of what we call a ‘neglected and underutilized species (NUS)’, that is a traditional crop that falls outside the mainstream of agricultural research and development. While a great investment in R&D was made during the green revolution to support staple crops such as rice, wheat, corn, potatoes etc, very little was done for minor crops like quinoa, amaranth, finger millets. These nutritious crops are becoming under threat because they are perceived as somehow not competitive with other crop species in the same agricultural environment.
But they can have a great potential to increase incomes, enhance nutrition and preserve the culinary and cultural traditions of indigenous communities. Moreover, these crops are often better adapted to grow in marginal areas, with little need for irrigation, pesticides and fertilizers. In many instances these species are the only ones that can cope with harsh environments.
Being able to buy quinoa cake in an important chain of coffee houses like Alexander coffee is the result of a 10 year Bioversity project funded by IFAD – a project that involved hundreds of people from poor communities across Bolivia, along with researchers, university professors, NGOs, marketing experts and policy makers. It successfully brought NUS to the marketplace where they have become part of the everyday coffee shop menu of the younger people who go to these kinds of places.
This kind of product and all the many steps needed to bring it to the table are fundamental to changing the ‘food-of-the-poor stigma’ related to these neglected species. But it is just the last link in the chain.
What lies behind this delicious slice of cake that I look forward to on my regular long flight to La Paz is a series of steps – such as improving production processes, conserving neglected species, furthering understanding of their potential to mitigate the effects of climate change, creating marketing networks, and building capacity – so that farmers and communities can take advantage of cultivating NUS.
And that is what makes the quinoa cake at Alexander Coffee a great recipe for success on many levels.