Cañihua: Quinoa’s Little Cousin Packs a Nutritional Punch

By Isaac Hopkins

Many areas in the Andean highlands of Peru and Bolivia are above 3800 meters in elevation. These highlands regularly experience extreme fluctuations in temperature—around 30°C (86°F)—and often  drop well below freezing at night. The area is also prone to drought, due to erratic mountain weather patterns and a winter dry season. It takes a special range of crops to feed the inhabitants of such an environment.

Cañihua plants near ripeness. Only partially domesticated, its genetic diversity is apparent from the wide range of colors. (Photo Credit: ccbolgroup.com)

The Chenopodium genus is known as the “goosefoots,” and is comprised of some 150 species. Two of these species are Quinoa and its lesser-known cousin, Cañihua. Specialized to grow at high elevations, Cañihua has been a staple crop in the Andean highlands for thousands of years.

Farmers in Peru and Bolivia produce almost all of the Cañihua grown in the world, but exports are minimal. At one time, much of South America, especially along the Andes Mountains, thrived on Quinoa and Cañihua, but the introduction of barley and wheat by Europeans caused a shift in agricultural production.

Still, these new cereal crops are usually difficult to grow at high elevations, as they are sensitive to frost and lack of rainfall, so some communities still rely on Cañihua for food. The plant is sown in the fall and can withstand night frosts, temperatures up to 28°C (82°F), or extended drought.

In addition to its hardiness, Cañihua is notable for the usefulness of the entire plant. Its leaves can be cooked and eaten like spinach and the entire plant can be dried and used as feed for livestock. Cañihua seeds contain up to 19 percent protein and are rich in amino acids. The seeds are also free from the high levels of saponins –a potentially toxic substance—that require special treatment in Quinoa. Cañihua seeds are primarily processed by lightly roasting them and then grinding them into flour, called Cañihuaco, which can be used in soups, drinks, breads, or even eaten on its own.

While Cañihua production could be increased to diversify diets, it is hampered by several factors. Its habitat is restricted to high elevation areas and it is not fully domesticated, resulting in inconsistent grain ripening. While this encourages broad genetic diversity, it has made large-scale harvesting very time- and labor-intensive. Nevertheless, Cañihua’s high nutritional value and resiliency could make it a valuable crop for high-altitude regions around the world.

Do you know of other crops that are perfectly suited for a particular region? How can we encourage local communities to grow indigenous crops that will flourish there?

Isaac Hopkins is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project

To read about other indigenous crops, seeShea: for People and PlanetEru: Growing Popularity of Cameroon’s Nutritious Wild VineStar Apple: Prized Fruit and Timber, and Shalakh Apricot: Protecting a Species’ Diversity, and a Local Culture.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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