Bolivian Quinoa 101: Great with caution… mostly environmental, so engage but with care!

Important analysis to carefully plan the production and trade of this exceptional cereal. Demagogue and poor planing should leave place to a well planned production to take care of the water and the soil. This is a timely advice!

[for recent articles on QUINOA, please click here]

Enrique Eduardo reports for Pagina Siete:

The dark side of quinoa

CONTAMINATION in grain washing, water is used in large volumes, which is not recycled and is discharged directly into the springs.

2013-05-11 10.29.13 amAfter the UN declared the international year of quinoa, regarded as the “gold grain” which is the more nutritious of the Andes and is the best alternative of food for hunger in the world, President Evo Morales, named “Special Ambassador of the quinoa for the world”, made gala of his eloquence and charisma to highlight the fact that quinoa is Bolivian and a contribution to the world.

Almost 6,000 producers grow quinoa in ten municipalities of the Southern Highlands and generate an average family income of between Bs.6,800 and Bs.40,000 a year by a crop which increased from 28,809 tons in 2007 to 92,000 hectares that are planted in 2012. In Oruro and Potosi there are 134,010 hectares cultivated and 53,000 at rest. The sale price has increased by 300% over the last five years.

The first dark feature is not actually of quinoa itself, but their treatment to make it edible for human consumption, i.e., the washing of the saponin, a bitter aggregate in the shell of the grains of quinoa. To be ready for human consumption, quinoa has to be washed previously.

Plants that wash quinoa grain are 62 in the country, of which 16% are artisanal, semi-industrial 27% and 57% industrial. 35% of these processors are in the Department of Oruro.

What happens is that with washing, in order to remove the saponin coating from each quinoa grain, it involves the use of large volumes of water, which is not recycled and is not to be used as is, which increases the permanent use of this highly scarce, especially in the Bolivian Highlands’ natural water resources.

The other factor, the more serious, is that saponin, resulting from washing grains of quinoa, is disposed directly to ditches, springs and streams without taking into account that this substance is a highly pollutant.

Saponin, which remains in the water used in the process of taking the bitterness out of quinoa, is highly toxic to cold-blooded animals and branchial respiration: fish, mollusks, frogs, toads, and others, because it permeates the respiratory membranes causing death.

Its toxicity has impacts of importance in a fragile ecosystem such as that of the Bolivian Highlands, where it is cultivated and processed in largest volume of quinoa in Bolivia, and affects both the Titicaca and Poopo lakes and their water tributaries, attacking the endemic species such as the frog lake (tematobius culeus) and fish species such as the ispi and k’arachi, among others.

More than six cubic meters of water are used to eliminate ten kilograms of saponin. The resulting concentration is poured directly to the environment.

Despite this inappropriate use of water and natural water courses scrapped with saponin, some producers called it “Organic” and “Fair trade” certified. [some readers and some vested politicians will tend to disregard this and even attack those who are warning these events… however and in order to be competitive and of course search for sustainability, we do not only have to talk or be aware of this, rather we need to find solutions ASAP]

A valuable research

Patricia Velásquez, head of laboratory of the Faculty of exact sciences and engineering of the La Paz Regional Academic Unit of the Bolivian Catholic University “San Pablo” (UCB), carries out the research entitled “de-contamination of effluent from treatment plants of quinoa” to obtain a doctorate degree in chemical engineering, under the system of doctorate-research in Bolivia by the UCB.

Velasquez said that, in principle, it is not known there are technologies for the decontamination of raw quinoa in treatment plants and effluents, therefore proposes a modification of the traditional milling process which would allow, in principle, to drastically reduce the emission of the polluted liquid effluent by the separation of saponin and a possible re-circulation of the solvent, in this case water. [I’d hope there would be someone like USAID who could fund this, I remember the Pollution Prevention Project, EP3 that precisely tackled this type of problem, by providing technical assistance free of charge, with recommendations to zero or almost zero cost to the company; which in turn brings more money to the owner and less pollutants being discharged, a win-win solution… unfortunately the demagogue of this government continues to put walls against sustainable development]

Saponin is considered a genetic adaptation against predation by birds. It has a capacity of sparkling wine, similar to soap, which can be used as raw material for the manufacture of soaps and all its derivatives of human and industrial use. Unfortunately, this raw material is discarded and the Government prefers to install “factories” of cardboard boxes instead of industrializing saponin.

Scientific and technical answers

Calling attention to these two negative factors, using water that is not recycled and the polluting factor of saponin, Ronanth Zavaleta, Director of Sciences and Chemical Engineering of the UCB, has generated the scientific answers with a “conceptual design oriented” to decrease the volume of water used in the washing of the saponin of quinua in grain and a consequent reduction in polluting tributaries of this Andean pseudocereal treatment plants.

In a study published in the journal Science and culture of May 2010, Zavaleta holds that “the liquid decontaminated and clarified, is returned to the circuit of extraction of saponin, this way it dramatically reduces both water consumption (solvent used in taking the bitterness out of quinoa) as well as the emission of contaminants into the effluents”.

The academic proposes modifications of the traditional processes, which include a stage of centrifugation as an alternative to the reduction of costs associated with the drying of wet grain. [clear example that we need to use technology and improve our lives, rather than the absurd demagogic governmental speech to go back 500 years]

Reduction of land

The Government and the FAO signed an agreement for the implementation of the International Quinoa Center, CIQ, with an investment of $53,000. This Center will investigate the improvement of cultivation of the quinoa in the camelid-quinoa complex, process management, improvement of seeds and sustainability of the soil based on crop rotation and the use of Llama manure.

Another of the factors with a negative impact on the success of quinoa crops, is precisely that to increase production, export and have more profit, producers are expanding their crops in camelid pastures and so are, at the same time, decreasing the sustainability of farming and especially annulling the factor of “organic product” that is important for the expansion of markets in Europe and the United States, because it generates a lack of natural fertilizers.

An extension of the agricultural frontier of quinoa would be almost impossible if we do not recover this extensive area with new technologies and modern farming practices.

(*) The author is a journalist.

Current central Bolivian government, given its clout and the enormous budget for its propaganda, should start an awareness program with this knowledge to continue to produce and export quinoa. It is not sufficient to have been self-appointed as the quinoa ambassador to the world, but it is crucial for quinoa’s sustainability.

Kudos to the UCB and its scientists, well done and keep on!!!

Published by Bolivian Thoughts

Senior managerial experience on sustainable development projects.

One thought on “Bolivian Quinoa 101: Great with caution… mostly environmental, so engage but with care!

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