Quinoa

24.05.17

Quinoa is an edible seed that is produced from the annual plant Chenopodium quinoa that originated in the Andes region of South America. It is considered a cereal and the small seed when cooked is slightly crunchy, with a fluffy consistency and a mild, delicate nutty flavour.

Overview

Quinoa is high in protein, calcium and iron and is a relatively good source of vitamin E and several of the B vitamins. Quinoa has potential for uses in many modern cuisines and there are a large range of products available from health food shops and major supermarkets. As it is gluten free, quinoa also appeals to those with gluten intolerance. Products include seed, flour, pasta and bread.

Quinoa seeds are disc-shaped and seed size ranges from 1.30–2.7mm in diameter. Plants are 1-2 metres tall with many branches and a flower head with large clusters of seeds at the end of the stalk that are harvested for the saleable product of quinoa seed.

Quinoa grown for commercial production is still a developing industry in Australia and much of the agronomic information comes from South America, United States, Canada and Europe where it is grown as a summer crop. Cultural practices and marketing are still being developed for Australia. Production has been successful in northern Tasmania and Western Australia.

Prices received for quinoa tripled in the eight years preceding 2014, due to demand in the USA and Europe, with prices in 2013 sitting at US$10-17 per kilogram retail price for South American organic quinoa. However, in late 2013 to early 2014 there was a 20% fall in quinoa prices at the farm gate with further falls expected as the South American harvest enters the market. As quinoa production increases world wide to meet demand, it is expected that prices will settle back closer to where they were in 2011, at around AU$2.50-3.70 per kilogram. Where the price finally settles will strongly depend on supply and demand. The return on quinoa and the fact that the plant is robust has seen an increasing grower interest in commercial production of the crop.

Quinoa is a developing industry in Australia and faces a number of challenges which are commonly posed to new industries, including developing machinery and facilities for commercial processing and establishing critical volume to develop an industry body.

Facts and Figures

  • Quinoa has been consumed for thousands of years in South America
  • Seeds and flowers come in a variety of colours ranging from green to red and purple
  • Quinoa was grown in more than 70 countries
  • Quinoa is being produced in Tasmania and Western Australia
  • Australian plantings of quinoa are estimated to be around 50 hectares, producing 45 tonnes of quinoa with an estimated value of AU$160,000
  • Machinery and facilities for commercial processing of quinoa in Australia need further development

Production Status

The status of quinoa in Australia comprises one main organic grower (located in Tasmania) with smaller cottage plantings in various regions around the country. Broad acre, non-organic cropping has been achieved to only a very limited extent in Western Australia. A number of producers have trialled quinoa intermittently with other crops or are producing small volumes. Growing interest in quinoa and quinoa products is likely to alter this in coming years.

The first Australian large-scale crop was grown in Tasmania in 2007. Total Australian plantings of quinoa were estimated to be 50 hectares, producing 45 tonnes of quinoa with an estimated value of AU$160,000. Quinoa is also produced in Western Australia and growers in other regions are expressing an interest in commercial production.

 - image

Map of current and potential growing regions

Uses

Quinoa is predominantly used as a food which, despite being a seed, is commonly eaten like a grain. A bitter, inedible husk must be removed from the seed before consumption. The seeds can be cooked like rice and used in salads, soups and curries. Other products from the seed include breakfast cereals, flour, muesli bars and bread.

Quinoa leaves are also palatable, however are not commonly consumed.

Quinoa has become popular in recent years because of perceptions that it has a range of health properties. Essential amino acids are located in the centre of the grain rather than the external shell, like in rice and wheat, this means they are digested instead of discarded.

Quinoa is also a good source of protein, calcium, iron, dietary fibre and minerals. An aspect of its attractiveness to consumers is that it is gluten free, making it an alternative for those with gluten intolerance.

Quinoa also has a variety of uses beyond human consumption. It can be used in cosmetic products, as green feed for livestock or in industrial products such as plastics.

Production Requirements

Growing regions

Quinoa is native to the Andes region of South America. It is grown in a range of altitudes, climates and soil types. Around 70 countries produced quinoa.

The largest producer of quinoa in Australia is located in northern Tasmania. Preliminary cropping trials have been successful in the wheat-belt and in Kununurra under irrigation in Western Australia.

Quinoa production is yet to be tried in other areas of Australia.

Soil type

Quinoa thrives in loamy soils with high organic content and good drainage. Soils with a neutral pH are preferred, however plants can tolerate alkaline (pH 8.5) and acidic soils (pH 4.8). The relationship between soil types and crop yield continues to be researched.

Climate

Quinoa is tolerant of a range of climates, depending on the variety. The ideal temperature for quinoa is between 15°C and 20°C, however the plant can withstand temperatures from -4°C to 38°C. Frost can be tolerated after the plant establishes and before the plant flowers. Full sun is desirable.

Quinoa can be grown in both winter seasons and summer seasons at various latitudes and altitudes under the broad constraints of temperature and moisture levels at these locations. Quinoa is a water efficient plant which can grow in regions with limited soil moisture and rainfall of 100mm, however irrigation can improve yields. The crop does not tolerate poor drainage and waterlogging.

Varieties

There are thousands of varieties of cultivated and wild quinoa. Three main cultivated varieties used for commercial production are white, dark red and purple or black. Quinoa varieties can differ in seed colour, flower colour, yield, protein content and growth rate. Varieties which are white or cream coloured are most popular, however coloured varieties are increasing in demand too. Some types are more suitable for popping due to their seed quality characteristics.

Varieties tend to be grouped according to the altitude in which they grow. The current varieties grown in Australia have generally been sourced from regions in South America that grow quinoa at sea level. Quinoa seed for commercial production in Australia has been imported from overseas and is subject to quarantine regulations and the fact that Quinoa has many relatives that are declared weed species.

Research on Australian adapted varieties and where they grow best in Australia was underway.

Planting and crop management

Quinoa is usually planted during early spring in South America and the northern hemisphere and production can be easily inserted into cropping rotations.

Quinoa is typically planted from seed, into ploughed soil. Australian research has shown that sowing rates in broadacre farming are similar to canola (3-5kg/ha). Seeding depth is 5-10mm into moist topsoil. Seeds are drilled into furrows along the field and are ready for harvest after 120-180 days, depending on the variety. In the USA, seed is sown at a rate up to 7kg/ha, 30-50cm between rows, and with 50-250kg nitrogen/ha applied.

Recent Australian research has shown that it is best to have some soil moisture for sowing, and that moisture is present for at least 7 days during the germination/emergence phase. Dry sowing has failed in this Australian research. Also, the research has highlighted the importance of exceptional seed quality (i.e. recently produced seed of high germination percentage – above 85%). Old seed of lower germination and/or vigour results in poor seedling establishment, density and slow seedling growth. Quinoa seed appears to reduce in viability relatively quickly, compared to crops like lupins, peas and cereals.

Fertilisers similar to those used in canola crops would be applicable (nitrogen and phosphorus; potassium and micronutrients depending on soil type and fertility levels).

Quinoa production is less dependent on fertiliser than other crops, however application of fertiliser is recommended after sowing and midway through the plants growth.

Quinoa yield varies depending on harvest technique and processes. Hand harvesting produces the greatest yield, however is labour intensive. New agronomic methods (although still organic) in Bolivia are achieving 1.5-2.5t/ha yields compared to previous traditional methods yielding 500-600kg/ha.

Yields up to 3.5t/ha are achieved in Peru with reports of some recent mutant lines having higher yields. Although quinoa currently yields less than crops like wheat, improvements in agronomy and genetic improvement via breeding and selection could rapidly increase its yield potential, in both organic and conventional farming.

Weeds, pests and diseases

Weed control can have a substantial impact on quinoa yields. Further research is required for weed control in quinoa specific to Australia.

Quinoa is susceptible to a range of pest species; it is particularly vulnerable before flowering. Plant leaves are vulnerable to insect attack whereas seeds are protected by an unpalatable outer layer. In South America the most commercially destructive pests are various moth species, including the quinoa moth. The quinoa moth eats young leaves, sticks leaves together and destroys emerging flowers and grains.

In Colorado common insects are the leaf miners and aphids usually associated with sugar beet and fat hen. Lygus bugs (that suck nutrients from blooming seed heads) are also reported to be a common pest in the USA.

In Australia, the most common pest encountered in preliminary trials was aphids, particularly in spring. Quinoa also appears to be very susceptible to red-legged earth mite after plant emergence during winter. At the end of the season, webworm (genus Hednota) has also been observed.

Pest control is best achieved through a combination of methods. Knowledge of pest lifecycles, use of pest tolerant varieties and bio and chemical pesticides are some commonly paired strategies.

Quinoa is not susceptible to cereal diseases and could be used as a break crop in an integrated cropping system. Downy mildew is reported to be one of the major fungal diseases in America, Europe and Canada. Although not yet reported in Australia, it is likely to occur as larger cropping areas are planted.

Discussions with collaborators who tried direct harvesting of quinoa said that this worked well – these were done on plots of quinoa that had matured well and were quite dry. Use of desiccants may be useful because some genotypes tend to stay green till late in the season. Swathing may also be useful in some environments.

Infrastructure Requirements

Quinoa can be grown using infrastructure which is required to produce canola and sorghum, these include:

  • Plough and drilling equipment
  • Harvester
  • Manual labour (if performing manual harvesting)
  • Threshing equipment
  • Storage facilities

Quinoa seeds also require ventilated and dry storage facilities.

Harvesting & Processing

In South and North America, Canada and Europe, crops are usually harvested in early autumn, however timing varies depending on the climate and variety planted. When the plant is ready for harvest, the leaves change from green to red or yellow and the seed heads lose colour.

A mechanical mower is used to harvest the entire plant and remaining organic matter can be retained in the field to support future crops. A combine harvester can also be used to harvest quinoa, thresh and winnow the seed. Threshing is required to remove seed hulls from the edible seed and winnowing is required to separate the seed. Depending on the variety, between 100,000 and 160,000 plants can be grown per hectare.

Once harvested, quinoa should be dried, washed and correctly stored. Quinoa can be dried in grain driers which are also used to dry canola. There are a variety of driers available; most rely on temperature and air flow to dry the seed, however because of its small seed size most cereal dryers have holes that the quinoa will fall through so driers need to be carefully selected.

In South America, quinoa is usually processed to remove the papillose cells of the outer layer of the pericarp of the seed hull, which contain the saponin, the soapy anti-nutritional compound found in quinoa and other food crop species. Washing with water or steam removes a large proportion of saponin before sale. Barley huller-pearler or rice polishers are used by some processors. A multi-step procedure of abrasion, aspiration, washing and heat drying is used by some large processing facilities.

Large scale commercial production would benefit from mechanical removal of the saponin layer, however further development of machinery and facilities need to be developed in Australia to facilitate this scale of production.

Once processed, quinoa should be stored in a clean, dry and ventilated area. Typically quinoa seed is stored in mesh sacks in a storage shed until sale. Quinoa which is not stored correctly may be subject to insect attack or premature deterioration.

Markets & Marketing

World quinoa prices have increased sharply in recent years in response to strong demand, despite increasing world quinoa production and exports. Quinoa is considered a gourmet product which attracts high premium.

Australian quinoa is predominantly sold directly to domestic shops or markets. Domestic sale has generated some interest, however quinoa price, quality and supply rates must stabilise to get full benefit from this market.

Some companies have experimented with quinoa products but quinoa price, quality and supply must become stable before it is transitioned to regular production. For these reasons some Australian food manufacturers prefer to import quinoa.

Potentially there are three markets to consider: domestic consumption which would comprise organic and mainstream food product markets; domestic seed production which is currently uncertified and presents a risk); and export.

Risks & Regulations

Risks/Challenges

Commercial production of quinoa faces a number of challenges which are commonly posed to new industries. There is a need to develop machinery and facilities for commercial processing and to establish critical mass to develop an industry body and trade processes. For this to be achieved, the number of commercial producers growing quinoa needs to increase. One way of achieving this is to establish an industry association consisting of growers, seed companies, processors, marketers, exporters and value-adding food companies. Such an organisation could participate in research and development.

Added to this are the agronomic challenges of sourcing certified seed, a narrow window for seeding and the intolerance of waterlogging.

In Australia, factories available for seed processing are few and do not cope with the demand.

Where importation of quinoa seed from overseas occurs, seed should be inspected by quarantine personnel to ensure weeds are not being imported.

Regulatory considerations

The regulatory considerations that apply to all Australian grain farms, including laws applying to chemical use and management, occupational health and safety and transport (including machinery movements and the loading/unloading of harvested grain) also apply to quinoa production.

A specific regulatory challenge for the quinoa industry is sourcing seed from overseas which is subject to quarantine regulations. Seed sourced from overseas can be contaminated with weeds from the Chenopodiumfamily and so related to Chenopodium quinoa. Adding to this that some countries are reluctant to release their seed to other countries, there may be a future demand for domestically produced seed.

Industry Bodies

There is no industry body for quinoa.

Image Gallery

 - image

Quinoa crop

 - image

Grain from two varieties of quinoa

 - image

Quinoa grains