Cooking up a plan to conserve Andean crop diversity
From tackling poverty, climate change and environmental degradation to preserving cultural heritage and agricultural sustainability, crop diversity is integral to solving some of the greatest challenges on the planet. An EU-backed research effort has made agrobiodiversity conservation in the Andean region its business. The hope is that crops like tarwi, amaranth, cañahua, arracacha, yacón and isaño could one day become household names as quinoa is today.
© Fotos 593 #90029981 2019, source:stock.adobe.com
Agribusiness has a tendency to focus on a subset of proven, often enhanced, crops that yield the most for the least effort. This, however, can come at the expense of species, cultivars and wild relatives deemed too obscure or difficult to develop at scale. Whats more, it can have a noticeable impact on food security, traditional farming practices and the ability of rural communities to cope with adversity, from climate change to economic pressures.
One of the highlights of the EU-backed LATINCROP project, according to the international team behind it, was the workshops conducted in Denmark and Spain, where top Latin American chefs demonstrated selected Andean crops and products like grains and new forms of flour in a series of traditional and modern dishes.
The workshops were accompanied by an e-cookbook with various recipes of the specific crops presented to European food writers, chefs, bloggers, stakeholders and other influencers, who were invited to taste and discover the nutritional qualities and traditional uses of these crops and their products.
Many of the stakeholders present at the workshops, held in Copenhagen and Zaragoza, considered the projects crops and products to have excellent commercial potential in Europe. The greatest interest was shown in quinoa, a small wheat-like grain that is already quite well established in Europe, but also in a lesser-known legume called tarwi or Andean (pearl) lupin.
Tarwi is a small edible bean that has been described by the National Academies Press (NAP) as one of the lost crops of the Incas whose seeds are packed with protein and oils, as much as soy bean and other oilseed crops. On the face of it, it is surprising tarwi (lupinus mutabilis) has not been developed as an international crop, writes the NAP.
Why crop diversity matters
The project set out in 2013 not only to identify under-appreciated species from the Latin American Andean region, but also to establish the case for their widespread use within robust cropping systems that factor in different growing conditions and novel crop combinations.
The underutilised species of the Andes are regarded as extremely nutritious and stress tolerant, hence [they play] a vital role in the upkeep of sustainable livelihoods and ecosystem stability, notes the LATINCROP team.
Implemented by researchers from Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Denmark and Spain, the project took stock of past and related work to invigorate undervalued Andean crops, including seeds, roots and tubers, to boost crop diversity and raise awareness of why this matters (a good summary of the main issues here is provided by Crop Trust).
International cooperation was a critical component of the work carried out, as confirmed by Michelangelo Cestari, co-founder of the famous GUSTU restaurant in La Paz and the Melting Pot initiative, which were important Bolivian participants in LATINCROP. Collaborating with top Danish chef Claus Meyer, Melting Pot helps poor people in the Andes Altiplano region by organising training placements in high-end restaurant environments. They learn how to be waiters and chefs while at the same time reinforcing their knowledge and appreciation of native crops and importance of eating more nutritious food.
LATINCROP enabled us to understand food production, rural communities, climate, seasons, logistical challenges and what is needed for efficient production, says Cestari. In return, the project gained insights into how busy companies operate, the market pressures, constant time and cost constraints, and the challenge of creating a sustainable yet profitable business model.
Most importantly for me, though, was learning that the model needs to be carefully and respectfully balanced for actual sustainable development to be achieved. And that business engagement and investment is the best way forward to generate long-lasting improvements in communities and society, Cestari stresses. Indeed, he believes the pairing of profit and not-for-profit sectors in the project introduced different perspectives on time, capital and target-setting, but this led to a mutually beneficial learning experience about the close links between food, people and prosperity.
Ancient technologies, modern thinking
All of the selected crop species quinoa, cañahua, tarwi, isaño, arracacha and yacón have experienced increased recognition in farming communities thanks to the project. We have contributed to the re-appraisal of ancient technologies, such as high beds and artificial lagoons, beneficial with respect to increasing production security by reducing risks of frost, flooding and drought, notes the team in its final reporting.
Quinoa activities, for example, were carried out in different agro-ecological zones, creating new products with more market acceptance, such as red and black quinoa, and increased productivity and nutritional quality. Cañahua has since been recognised by the government of Bolivia, which is likely to boost its production and consumption. Various products were developed from arracacha, including flour and flakes. Tarwi showed good frost-resistance and was piloted and grown in sandy soils. A popular local drink based on isaño, already known for its anti-inflammatory properties against, for example, prostate or urinary tract diseases, was further investigated.
Agrobiodiversity calendars have also been developed by the team. These describe the traditional and technical management of Andean crops around the year covering soil preparation, fertilising, sowing, and harvesting phases, and include information about folkloric connections and festivities. The previously mentioned e-book of traditional and modern recipes for the selected crops was created. It includes the nutritional value, history, background information, as well as production and consumption habits of the crops. The publication is available to download for free. More information about publications and project outputs, including work on a quinoa germplasm database, can be found at the LATINCROP website.
Conservation, economy, society and networking these were the simple guiding principles of the four-year project, which heralds the rich variety and versatility of exotic, tasty, nutritional crops from the Andes. Throughout the project, respect and recognition of cultural diversity, equal rights, inclusion and transparency were considered key to achieving the best cooperation and results.