Washington State University Extension

Irrigated Soil Management


Developing adapted varieties and optimal management practices for quinoa in diverse environments

The Problem:

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations declared 2013 as their official International Year of Quinoa (UN, 2011).  The main objective of this FAO initiative is to “promote the benefits, characteristics and potential use of Quinoa in the fight against hunger and malnutrition, as a contribution to a global strategy on food security.” Quinoa is a traditional Andean seed crop that has been cultivated in the Peruvian and Bolivian highlands for more than 7,000 years (Pearsall, 1992), and gaining substantial interest as a food security crop outside the center of origin in various countries around the globe (Bhargava et al., 2007; Jacobsen et al., 2003b).Chenopodium_quinoa0

The reasons for FAO’s interest in and emphasis on quinoa are multifaceted.  Quinoa is a highly nutritious food with excellent protein quality and quantity, very high lysine and a balanced amino acid composition (Oelke et al., 1992; Vega-Gálvez et al., 2010).  Quinoa seed is richer in lipids than most cereal grains including wheat, rice, barley, maize, oat and rye. Lipid content of quinoa generally ranges from 5.0 to 7.2% (Vega-Gálvez et al., 2010). Quinoa lipid is a rich source of essential fatty acids (Valencia-Chamorro, 2003). Quinoa also has been shown to be rich in vitamins and minerals (Comai et al., 2007) and to be higher in calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, iron, copper, manganese, and zinc than wheat, barley or corn (Oelke et al., 1992).  In addition, quinoa is gluten-free and an excellent option for the almost two million North Americans who are gluten intolerant (Byrne, 2010). The gluten-free food market was worth almost $1.6 billion in 2009 and had an annual growth rate of 28% over the previous four years (Alvarez-Jubete et al., 2009; Daniells, 2010).  Replacing standard gluten-free flours with quinoa flour improves intakes of protein, iron, calcium, and fiber (Daniells, 2010).

Quinoa is a broadly adapted crop with robust resilience to many environmental and climatic conditions.  Quinoa has excellent drought resistance, thrives in a wide range of soil pH, and tolerates light frost and late rains (Oelke et al., 1992).  In South America it is distributed over a broad range of latitudes (spanning nearly 3,000 miles from equatorial Columbia to temperate southern Chile), a wide range of altitudes (from sea level to over 13,000 ft in elevation), and a diverse set of rainfall zones (Galway, 1989).

Despite its outstanding level of resiliency, one area of improvement needed for optimal quinoa performance is better heat tolerance.  Impacts from high temperatures have been seen in Colorado and Minnesota in the US (McCamant, 2011; Oelke et al., 1992), Morocco (Jellen et al., 2005), and Greece (Iliadis et al., 2001). During initial trials of quinoa in Colorado, varieties from central Chile and southern Bolivia exhibited the highest tolerance to high temperatures, while those originating from Peru and Ecuador proved sensitive and performed poorly (Johnson, 1990). A recent experiment in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile has identified variation for adaptation to desert conditions with high temperatures and low precipitation (Fuentes and Bhargava, 2011). Quinoa from Chile and varieties bred from Chilean germplasm were identified as best adapted to high maximum temperatures in WSU variety trials held in Washington State in 2010 and 2011 (unpublished data).

Quinoa exhibits noteworthy drought and salinity tolerance in comparison with other agricultural crops, with some varieties of quinoa in Bolivia and Chile (in the Atacama Desert) remaining productive with under 200 mm (~8 inches) of rainfall per year (Aguilar and Jacobsen, 2003; Martínez et al., 2009). Quinoa can grow at soil salinity concentrations approaching and equaling the salinity of seawater (Jacobsen et al., 2003a). In the case of the variety Kcankolla, seeds exhibited high germination rates at salinity levels exceeding that of seawater (Jacobsen et al., 2001; Jacobsen et al., 2003a; Koyro and Eisa, 2008).  Depending on regional climatic and soil conditions, it will be important to incorporate these traits into varieties adapted to organic farming systems in the US.

Yield varies considerably for quinoa depending on the cultivar grown, the area of cultivation, and the growing conditions. In Colorado, reported grain yields average around 1,200 lbs/acre (Oelke et al., 1992). In South America, yields vary considerably. Average yield figures from 1980-1998 for Peru were 678 kg/ha (~605 lbs/acre), though yields from research stations far exceed this figure, reaching up to 4,000 kg/ha (~3,500 lbs/acre) (Mujica et al., 2003).  At one location in northern Chile, yields average around 583 kg/ha; however, in coastal southern Chile, varieties have been bred that yield as high as 6500 kg/ha (~5,800 lbs/ac) under optimal environmental conditions and 3,000 kg/ha (~2,700 lbs/ac) under marginal field conditions. Additionally, one variety tested in Chile in the Atacama desert yielded as much as 9,000 kg/ha (~8,000 lbs/ac) under supplemental irrigation (Delatorre-Herrera, 2003).

Developing economically viable soil fertility strategies for can be challenging in extensive organic systems such as small grains, especially when irrigation or natural rainfall is limiting. For this reason it will be essential to develop best management strategies for organic quinoa production. Deficit irrigation and intercropping are two strategies that can be used to improve performance under low input conditions. The practice of intercropping small grains with legumes has been shown to have promise, including reduced soil erosion, soil quality improvement, disease suppression, weed suppression, and reduced N-leaching (Liebman and Dyck, 1993; Ofori and Stern, 1987). Soil enzyme activity and microbial biomass are positively correlated with nutrient cycling, labile organic matter, and structural properties of soils such as aggregate stability and bulk density (Celik et al., 2004; Giusquiani et al., 1994; Liebig et al., 2004). Hence they are proposed as indicator tests for overall soil quality (Dick, 1994). Such tests have been used with particular success when comparing soil quality in agricultural systems with contrasting management histories and low soil organic matter (Acosta-Martinez et al., 2003; Bergstrom et al., 1997).

The objectives of the research:

  1. Identify and quantify domestic demand and future marketing opportunities for domestically grown organic quinoa.
  2. Evaluate and select quinoa varieties and breeding lines in organic systems for critical traits of interest
  3. Develop best management practices for organic quinoa production.
  4. Evaluate the end-use quality traits and nutritional value of quinoa varieties and breeding lines.
  5. Disseminate information about, and develop farmer/distributor relationships for, organic quinoa production and marketing.
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