The reward for braving out on the hills of Meghalaya is discovery. Discovery that is profitable, not just for Zizira's explorers, but for the farmers and for all who are looking for a great way to get back to healthy, non-synthetic lives.
This time, we found out how an ancient grain – whose domesticated heritage has been traced back to 4,000 years in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia and Chile – that can easily be grown in Meghalaya, adding incredible nutritional value to our diets. This pseudo-grain is quinoa, and the Bio-Resources Development Centre (BRDC), Shillong believes that it is perfectly suited for this climate.
Quinoa, the Wonder Grain
This 'grain' belongs to the goosefoot genus, grown primarily for its edible seeds. That makes it a pseudo-cereal, somewhat similar to buckwheat. Scientists at BRDC have started growing it in Meghalaya and have found ways to grow it profitably too. Like anything new, we must ask the question why?
Why grow a crop that is not even indigenous to this country? The answers are simple. Being 'ancient', it has not been modified and retains its natural ability to fight climate changes and predators. And having survived for so long, its survival instincts would enable it to prosper in these climates too.
Also, quinoa provides tremendous nutritional benefits, when organically grown, would impart huge benefits in this synthetic world. It could turn out to be immensely profitable for the farmers as well.
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They are a complete source of proteins, which means they have all the nine amino acids necessary for humans. These are not produced by the human body and hence has to be included through an external food source. It is also high in fibre and is said to be rich in mineral content, like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, etc.
Caution: Quinoa seeds contain saponin, a toxic glycoside, which gives it a bitter taste, located on the outer coating of seeds. Saponin is the major anti nutritional compound and must be removed before consumption. Seeds can be rubbed, brushed, or washed (the traditional method) to remove the saponins. This process adds to the cost of processing and marketing this ancient grain.
Knowing that quinoa grows in Meghalaya, there is burst of excitement among the Zizira explorers! The team is figuring out what to look for in good quality quinoa. After all we may find unique and healthy quinoa growing in Meghalaya, that too all the very different from the ones found elsewhere.
As we were getting ready to explore, we happen to meet a quinoa enthusiast who has visited the Northeast India and looked at the possibility of growing it here! Seeing this as an opportunity not to be missed, we talked to him about quinoa!
A Quinoa Expert!
Meet Dr. Srinivas Rao, a biotech and life science scientist with over 25 years of experience in research on molecular biology. Having published over 30 peer reviewed research papers, he has worked in different countries and chaired several scientific meetings! Editor of the book “Quinoa: Nutritional & Health benefits”, he is the founder and President of North East Biotech, LLC, an organization working with quinoa and other areas of malnutrition.
1. How did you start with the quinoa revolution in India? Human nutritional needs are changing rapidly due to changes in life style. We need food that can give us more nutrition and less calories. Farmers need new crops to grow as there might be health issues in farming the old crops regularly. Therefore, when I searched for a better, nutritious, easy to cultivate, less water consuming, easy to adopt crop, I found that quinoa met all these requirements!
2. Is there any difference between the quinoa grown in South America and India? There are some 3,000 wild varieties of quinoa. But a few of them are being used for cultivation in South America. White Royal Quinoa is a special variety that is unique to Bolivian Altiplano. Seeds need certain rules and regulation to get from one country to another.
I have been working with seeds that are registered with National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, Shimla, Government of India. We have compared the nutritive values of the Bolivian and Indian grown ones and found no significant difference. However, depending on the soil, salts and minerals there could be specific differences. We are yet to check all the Indian varieties.
3. You have visited the Northeast before and even introduced quinoa in Manipur. Anything you would like to share from the experience? I visited the Northeast earlier to meet people in Manipur and Nagaland. Also visited Shillong as a tourist. I surely like to visit again. It is naturally beautiful. I have introduced quinoa seed to a friend. She has grown it well. It is only to demonstrate the potential. We have to plan a proper farming in the coming season.
4. Coming to Meghalaya, what do think are the possibilities of a mass quinoa production from the state, owing to the hilly topography? Now that you have formed the nucleus for growing quinoa I see a very good potential for Meghalaya to farm quinoa. Originally quinoa is a high altitude plains crop from the Andean mountain region in South America. We have tested and found that Quinoa grows well in Ladakh. In the same manner I expect it to grow well in your areas.
5. Do you think quinoa can improve the livelihood of the farmers? Yes. While rice and wheat consumptions are coming down, people need alternative grain. Quinoa can fill that gap and provide better revenue. At present farmers are getting four times more revenue for quinoa compared to rice. The prices may come down in future but the better variety of seeds improve the yields and provide good revenue for farmers.
Moreover, quinoa needs less water and it does not a highly fertile soil either. In fact, it can even grow in salty soils. India needs some one million tons of Quinoa in the years ahead. Thus quinoa can surely improve the live hood of farmers.
Is There a Future With Quinoa for the Northeast India Farmers?
Rice, wheat, maize and potato account for 60 % of human energy supply. Especially in India, we are dependent on rice and wheat a lot. So, to promote quinoa as a palatable option for rice is going to be tough. This food, however, has to be encouraged by academia, policy makers and civil society, says Srinivasa Rao.
The annual quinoa imports into the European Union has reached 20,038 tons in February 2016, which translates to a growth rate of 29% in comparison to 2015. Quinoa imports per year till February 2016, in tonsSource.
With a huge price upsurge for quinoa in the global market, this successful experiment by BRDC Shillong shows that there is hope for farmers to an alternate high value crop. Quinoa has made an entry into India and could be here to stay as it is a win-win for consumers who are health conscious and for farmers looking for better returns.
Until recently, all of it was imported, but now farmers in India have started growing it. Zizira is exploring the possibility of offering Meghalaya grown quinoa for those looking for healthy options. Join us as we take you on our journey to explore the misty hills of Northeast India.
Watch this video as employees at Chillibreeze try pronouncing the word QUINOA!