“From my interest in a weedy species to Quinoa: a personal look back”

Sowing the seeds for the future 

“Kieno-what”? Back in the spring of 2001, I had told my father that I would be sowing quinoa on the 1-hectare plot where I was allowed to experiment with new crops. Inspired by the drought tolerance, opportunistic nature and vigour of the common weed, fathen (Chenopodium album), I asked an agronomist about this fascinating species. During our conversation, he informed me for the first time about quinoa; a ‘sister’ crop of fathen and a ‘niece’ of spinach. We hoped that quinoa would be easier to manage than fathen, as the latter is an agriculture crop. I read about quinoa’s Andean origin and its interesting characteristics: its salt- and drought tolerance, superior grain-protein quality and balanced nutritional profile. I also learned about the existence of a quinoa breeding program at Wageningen University & Research, just around the corner. Trialling an Andean crop on a Dutch farm? Why not. After all, potatoes originate from the same region and introducing and adapting exotic crops in ‘new’ regions is of all times. The variety from Wageningen University & Research which we were allowed to trial in 2001 seemed to work well on Dutch soils. We finalised a successful trial without relevant damage from pests, and did so with zero inputs of pesticides and irrigation.

Quinoa: just too good to be a niche product

Several years later, I decided to follow up on my research in quinoa; at first by starting a new desk study in 2011. Why was this nutritional, high-quality ‘grain’ and interesting crop still relative unknown (especially when considering its many benefits for farmers and healthy diets)? My desk-study was followed by a field research in 2012, to gain insights on the market potential of quinoa and the feasibility of establishing a Dutch quinoa chain and worldwide quinoa network. After receiving a Nuffield Farming Scholarship, I travelled to several continents and was grateful to meet passionate farmers, producers and researchers already involved in quinoa production.
The millenary history of the crop in the Andean region, the incredible wealth of genetic diversity of available in Peru and Bolivia, and the early developments of a European production chain in France were really impressive. My personal conclusion was simple: quinoa is just too good to be a niche product and the worldwide potential as a crop and food ingredient deserves a podium. Coincidentally, The United Nations declared 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa and began a global campaign focused on pointing out quinoa’s nutritional qualities and its adaptability to different agro-ecological conditions; both assets crucial to global food security. The UN International Year of Quinoa turned out to be a fantastic podium for quinoa and created interest in the ‘future crop’ and ‘mother grain’ from people all over the world. 

Quinoa trial on my parental farm
The Netherlands, 2001

Visiting a quinoa production area
Andean plateau, Bolivia, 2012

A future sown thousands of years ago

In 2014, my business partner and I formed  a consortium with a French company – Abbottagra – and Wageningen University & Research. This was the birth of Dutch Quinoa Group, a company founded to operate the first Dutch quinoa supply chain, based on non-bitter quinoa varieties from the Wageningen University & Research breeding program. Soon we started to collaborate with other European quinoa initiatives, sharing a passion in sustainable agriculture and believing in the local and global potential of the Andean crop.
The way we cultivate quinoa nowadays is quite different than I did in the 2001 trial. We can look back to major lessons we learned about the crop, the nutrient-dense grains it gives us but also the quinoa marketplace. Recently, we reached the 5-year anniversary of the Dutch Quinoa Group; meanwhile, the European quinoa production network reached its 10th anniversary. And soon Wageningen University & Research will celebrate 30 years of quinoa research and breeding. There events are but historical seconds when compared with the millenary history of quinoa in the Andean region, but for us, they remain huge milestones. Today, our focus and ambitions have evolved: we recently launched The Quinoa Company (read also the blog – The Quinoa Company- providing variety with superior quinoa varieties) with a mission to make quinoa accessible for all farmers and consumers worldwide by giving them access to superior varieties adapted for cultivation in multiple environments.

In the meantime, the history of quinoa and the quinoa market developments in the period 2010-2016 have proved to be an interesting study case. The global market breakthrough that quinoa is experiencing today has stemmed from the passion and commitment of many people around the globe. It’s great to see how multiple, new efforts are made by breeders, farmers, producers and product developers from all over the world to help making quinoa part of our daily diet. I feel confident to say that the future for quinoa will continue to flourish. A future sown thousands of years ago.

Best regards, 

Rens

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