PROVO — Brigham Young University researchers are trying to restore a once-sacred plant to some of its former glory in impoverished Bolivia.
At the height of the Incan civilization, the quinoa (keen-wah) plant was a prime staple. But Spanish colonists banned the plant because it was used in non-Christian ceremonies. It then became a meager food source for poor farmers on the high plains.
The plant has been hailed as one of the most complete foods on earth — boasting a perfect balance of amino acids and proteins. No other plant is like it.
"The best way to put it is that if you had to live on any one food, quinoa would be the best choice," said Daniel Fairbanks, leader of the BYU research team.
The unique quinoa — dubbed a "supergrain" in some reports — can be consumed as a grain or a vegetable. Seeds can be eaten or ground into flour, while the leaves can be boiled or eaten straight, like spinach.
While the quality and yield of such crops as potatoes and corn have been improved throughout the years, not much attention has been given to quinoa.
Now, with a growing worldwide market for their crop, Bolivian farmers have a rich source of potential income. The problem, however, is that most can barely grow enough to feed their own families, let alone something extra to export for profit.
Many of the farmers who raise quinoa are native descendants of the Inca.
"When their crops fail, these farmers have one of three choices," said Rick Jellen, a BYU researcher involved in the project. "They can stay on their land and starve, move to overcrowded cities and look for work, or they can move down to the high jungle and grow coca."
It seems a bleak outlook — but it's reality for the native farmers who live on the high altiplano of Bolivia. Since 1987, however, BYU professors have been trying to improve the quinoa plant by studying the DNA of differing varieties of quinoa.
They want to isolate the best characteristics — and cross-breed those plants.
"We're using technology to improve classical plant breeding," Jellen said. "These plants are not genetically altered; the Bolivians don't want that."
However, by isolating DNA "markers," the BYU team has been able to identify desired traits in certain varieties and allow growers to naturally work those traits into other varieties. For example, the team has already found a way to increase the drought tolerance of the plant. It has also isolated the marker for a detergent that covers the quinoa's seeds, which acts as a deterrent to birds that would feed on the plant.
This is a desired quality in the northern region of Bolivia, but in the south, where birds are not a problem, the detergent gene can be turned off, reducing the need for post-harvest processing of the plant.
By finding DNA markers, the team can increase the success of traditional practices, which, without the help, would be a trial-and-error process lasting decades.
By doing the DNA work, Fairbanks said, "we do what (the Bolivians) can't do."
Since 1991, the team has been working closely with Bolivian scientists on the project. BYU handles the research, while the Bolivian team primarily focuses on implementation of the data through training and social programs.
One of those programs aims to prevent Bolivians from selling all of the quinoa they raise and living off of nutritionally inferior foods.
"It's a two-edged sword," Fairbanks said. "They benefit from the export market and it raises the value of their product, but if it becomes too valuable, they might just sell all of the quinoa. It's so nutritious, it helps them overcome protein deficiencies. It's a critical food for them."
The project is made possible by a $900,000 grant from the McKnight Foundation, a Minnesota-based charity that supports crop-raising projects for impoverished nations.
"They've been wonderful to work with," Fairbanks said of the foundation. "They're very concerned about the project, and they've made it happen."
The Doug Holmes family of Farmington, as well as the Ezra Taft Benson Institute at BYU, also have provided funding.
The project is directed by six BYU professors, who work with 14 counterparts in Bolivia. It also involves about 50 undergraduate students and eight graduate students from BYU, and students and scientists from Bolivia frequently come to study in Provo. The head of the Bolivian team, Alejandro Bonifacio, graduated from BYU.
And while the BYU scientists have had little interaction with the people who are the beneficiaries of their work, they have had a chance to meet some of the farmers they have helped.
"I have met some of them, and that is a very moving experience," Fairbanks said. "They're very gentle, very wonderful people."
Jellen said one of its greatest benefits is allowing those people to maintain their tradition.
"We would like to see the rural Bolivians stay on the land, grow more productive quinoa and maintain their cultural heritage," he said. "And that's what they want, too."