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Supergrain quinoa thrives on plateau


Updated: 2015-09-08 07:58:53

An unusual-looking crop with dark-red spikes and purple-green leaves is flourishing along the banks and valleys of the Lhasa and Yarlung Zangbo rivers, despite a lasting drought on the roof of the world.

"A bumper harvest of quinoa is expected this autumn on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau," said Gongbo Tashi, a professor at the agricultural college of Tibet University, who introduced quinoa to China in the 1990s.

Quinoa has been cultivated in the Andes in South America for over 5,000 years. However, it's health benefits, such as its high protein and mineral content, have only recently garnered worldwide attention.

The so-called supergrain is highly nutritious, drought resistant and salt tolerant, making it popular with many industrialized countries.

It is so nutritious that NASA feeds it to its astronauts on space missions, making it a candidate for controlled ecological life support systems in spaceships, which will grow crops.

Experts say quinoa responds well to controlled environments, with increases in seed production and increased yield.

A 200-hectare plot of quinoa will yield 250,000 kilograms of grain, said Huang Zhaogang, president of a quinoa company and Gongbo Tashi's business partner.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization named 2013 the International Year of Quinoa in recognition of its potential contribution to the fight against hunger and malnutrition.

Gongbo Tashi had the idea of introducing the crop to Tibet after reading a report about it in an English newspaper in 1987.

He thought quinoa was quite adaptable and would be suitable for high altitude areas, usually 3,000 or 4,000 meters above sea level, making the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau a desirable new home for the plant.

Meats and barley are the core foods eaten by Tibetans in the cold and rigid highlands, but they are not comprehensively nutritious and are believed to be a factor affecting life expectancy.

Huang said that his primary goal was to ensure quinoa's benefits reach ordinary Tibetans while meeting consumers' demands nationwide.

Gongbo Tashi and Huang have helped Tibetan farmers, and doubled their incomes through the new crop. They hope that quinoa will become the first Tibet-grown food to be exported overseas.

It all started back in 1987, when Gongbo Tashi sought technological support from a leading quinoa producer in the United States. Then he went to study in the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico in 1988, attending classes taught by Norman Borlaug, the 1970 Nobel laureate who has been called "the father of the Green Revolution" and "agriculture's greatest spokesman".

Gongbo Tashi brought seeds back to Tibet and, in the early 1990s, the Tibetan government approved the quinoa cultivation project.

After a few failed experiments, Gongbo Tashi and his team cooperated with Huang, and they successfully grew the crop in Qinghai province. Since 2010, they have planted quinoa on a large scale in the Tibetan counties of Lhoka, Chushu and Lhatse.

In more than 20 years, his team has bred several new varieties to suit the environment and conditions on the plateau, and named one of the variants "Quinoa of Tibetan Dream".

"As a Tibetan scientist, I haven't wasted my life, because I brought quinoa into Tibet and made it live," he said.