Quinua crop in the Mediterranean eco-region

quinoa panicle semilla hoja-de-quinoa SONY DSC
According to the variety and location, this herbaceous erect can reach up to 3 meters of height. Pivoting root and highly branched, with ribbed stems and branched from the base. The leaves are triangular, lightly fleshy, petioles and with the toothed edge. Its small flowers are incomplete, sessile, arranged in clusters of the same coloration of the sepals, being able to be hermaphrodites, pistillate or male sterile. The fruit is an achene with squashed whitish seeds, pink or black with a diameter of 1-2mm.

The species such as Chonopodium quinoa Willd., Chonopodium pallidicaule, Oxalis tuberosa or Lupinus mutabilis Sweet. are subsistence crops in South America and play an important role in production systems. Experts place the origin of quinoa in the Andean zone of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia, like the potato (Solanum tuberosum), the bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) and the tomato (Solanum lycopersicum). The Chonopodium quinoa, popularly called quinoa, quechua or suba, is the basic food of many peoples. In Peru this crop is priority for the food safety so that in 1993, in the zone of the high-plains mountains, 257.000 hectares were sowed.

1 plantaquinoa
Quinoa crop in Cachilaya, Bolivia

Since ancient times [1] this rustic farming is prized for its resistance to adverse weather conditions and even the quinoa adapts to land where other crops don’t develop. With a high ecological value, this species covers the nutritional needs of men and animals, is used in industry and in medical applications. The high nutritional value of the grains has made that this crop comes to the USA and in Europe its adaptation and implantation is studied for obtaining starch, proteins and industrial products such as saponin.  The cultivation of the quinoa in the Mediterranean area would originate the productive diversification in the traditional systems of the extensive farming  and the utilization of marginal lands or left fallow.

Nowadays Bolivia is the major producer of grain with 18.000 tons per year, registering also the highest surfaces. Together with Peru and Ecuador they are the three main producers and exporters of grain. Additional data contained in the report concerning other grain producers [quinua]:

country ecological and geographical areas variety of quinoa kg/ha
Chile Chilean Altiplano. Like the Bolivian altiplano.  .
Conception. Catentoa; eco-types of small grain, flattened and transparent grain.
Argentina Jujuy and Salta, generally more than 2000 meters high  .  .
Venezuela Merida, Maracay, Trujillo and Lara.  .  .
Colombia Boyaca, Cundinamarca, Valle, Huila, Nariño, Santander and Antioquia.  .  .
Canada Savannah of Bogota.  . 1.300
USA West.  .  .

In their areas of origin, quinoa farming has a cycle from 4 to 8 months according to the varieties and the height above the sea level. Ecological and fito-geographical aspects of the crop:

phase traditional dry farming. zones with irrigations and inter-andean valleys. peruvian coast. others

Seeds don’t present dormancy and germinate when the conditions are adapted in the same plant. Wild seeds can remain in the soil without germinating from 2 to 3 years.


Its growth develops  in frost-free periods despite its hardiness. Phases: sprouting, emission of the first pair of true leaves, beginning of the panicle formation, flowering and maturing.


August >> December: subordinated to the beginning of the rains and increase of the temperatures.

August until ends of December.


Throughout the year: it accepts very well the winter sowing.

humidity 250 mm annual 1.500 mm annual . .
harvest March – May March – May March – May .

The quinoa needs enough dampness in the initial stages of crop but this herbaceous demonstrates a great resistance to the drought in the following phases. In the phase of ramification, the quinoa supports even -5°C depending on the variety and duration of the minimal temperature. In the phases of flowering and ripeness, the resistance to the cold and the drought varies according to the species but there are varieties that withstand -8°C. This grassy prefers loam soils, semi-deep,  drained and with nutrients. The quinoa adapts to acid soils with a pH 4,5 but also to the alkaline ones of pH 9,5.

Traditional farming practices

In the zones of origin to sowing under conditions of dryness, in rotation with potato or in alternate stripes with corn. The preparation of the area is scanty and they take advantage of the residual organic fertilizer the previous crop, in this way, the farmer maximizes revenue, minimizes risks and allows the agronomic, ecological, social and cultural rationality of an agricultural system subject to the conditions of altitude and the climatic unpredictability.

Seeding is broadcast or in lines between 40 to 80 centimeters of separation. The amount of seed is from 10 to 20 kg / ha. If the density of seed is low the vegetative period may be extended, maturation is unequal and the mechanical harvesting is complex but if the amount is excessive, the competition between plants affects to the performance and the cost of production raises in labor. An example of balance,  it’s recommended 4 to 6 kg / ha for the Bolivian altiplane and 15 to 23 kg/ha in Puno (Peru).  Outside its area of origin  was piloted in Cambridge with 20 kg/ha on plant lines with a distance of 20 cm each other. The agricultural labors after the sowing are limited to one or two hoeing, specially in the
interandean valleys. Neither controls of plagues nor diseases are effected.

cosechadoraThe harvest  is realized in the physiological maturity of the plants, spreads on the area for 15 or 30 days and later it’s threshed striking it with curved sticks or by trampling animals. The crop yield ranges from 400 to 12,000 kg/ha and is related to soil fertility, fertilizers, planting season, different varieties, control of pests, diseases and climatic accidents. In suitable weather conditions, the average yield is of 5000 kg/ha of grain and of 5-10 t/ha of straw for animal feed. The combine-harvesters can be combined or stationary.

Nutritive value

Quinoa is a protein source. With the flour of quinoa rustic bread, bread without gluten andcomida peruana wholemeal bread is made. It’s a nourishing and tasty food that substitutes the rice in soups or salads, serves for infantile food and for producing flakes, pasta, cookies, fermented drinks, etc. Quinoa grain in comparison with the principal cereals has major content in protein and fat and is lower in carbohydrates. The protein contained in the grain of quinoa presents proportions of essential amino acids (specially lisina, histidina and isoleucina) higher than other cereals. The quinoa is also a source of vitamins (E, B2, B6), folic acid and biotin. This plant species contains minerals such as calcium, potassium, iron, copper, magnesium and chlorides. The mineral elements differ according to the variety of quinoa, for example, the variety Sajana also provides phosphorus and zinc. 

The bitter flavor of the grain, because of the glucoside, affects negatively in its consumption but this flavor disappears with successive washes. Nowadays besides the humid method, the saponin is eliminated by dry and combined methods. The process in dry is through the polishing machines of wheat using brushes and the combined process uses the previous one and in addition a short wash. The plant is used as forage and the residues of the crop are used to feed the livestock but some research recommend to determine the possible harmful effect of the saponins, which is a glycoside contained in the covers of the seeds.

Medicinal use

The leaves, stems and grains have healing properties, anti-inflammatory, analgesic against the toothache or disinfectants of the urinary tract. They are also used for fractures, internal bleeding and as an insect repellent. The foam proceeding from the saponin is less pollutant than the synthetic products and doesn’t present alkalinity. The content of saponin, that produces the bitter flavor to the grain, reduces the cholesterol and the development of arteriosclerosis.

Industrial use
The starch from this plant is used in plastic biodegradable, anti-pollutants of the powder and in the cosmetics, in addition, the  saponin molecules are used as natural pesticide and the stems are used in the paper industry. Many products are obtained from seed processing although we must consider the toxic effect of the alkaloid and bitterness produced by the glucoside. 
The saponin is used as:

  • soapmaking
  • cosmetics
  • bath powders
  • shampoo
  • toothpaste
  • liquid soap
  • disinfectant
  • ointment
  • talcum
  • stain remover
  • dyeing of fur
  • in papermaking
  • assist in the golden glass
  • oil emulsion (for spraying fruit trees)
  • emulsifier and softener (for base salts)
  • lubricant
  • poison (for fish and cold-blooded animals)
  • insect repellent
  • etc.

Starting research in Europe

Galwey and his team of the department of genetics at the University of Cambridge introduces this crop in Europe in 1982. They investigated the quinoa as alternative to the cereals in the human diet. They were followed in 1989 by the University of Denmark and subsequent further investigations in diverse European countries. Studies related to the culturing, production, utilization and commercialization. Finland investigated the possibilities of acclimatization and in eastern Europe and Asia began to investigate this pseudocereal. The EU studies the usefulness of the Quinoa and the definitive implantation of its cultivation on European soil due to the high demand for products derived from this species. The principal European countries plaintiffs have managed to adapt and to obtain own production.

The program for the introduction and adaptation of the quinoa in Spain began in 1992 in the fields of experimentation of  the Escuela Técnica Superior de Ingenieros Agrónomos of Madrid. In a beginning the vegetative adjustment was satisfactory in 47 varieties but not this way the grain production. The research work developed later in fields of experimentation in Toledo, Guadalajara and Cuenca.

 QUINUAFENOLOGIARecent studies on quinoa

According to the report Crop Prospects and Food Situation. FAO – June, 2013 the high price of the quínoa and the strong foreign demand makes the majority of production is exported to countries more developed as USA (10.000 tons of quinoa Peruvian > 29,9 million dollars in 2012), this has caused that the local consumption has lowered proliferating the consumption of the most economic products as the wheat or the rice.

92 % of the world production relapses into Bolivia and Peru. The remaining 8% in the US, Ecuador, Argentina, Colombia and Chile but also in some countries of the Asian and European continents (in southern Europe the production is extremely limited). Even with these data, it’s too early to know if the quínoa will be a basic food in the world’s diet.

What do European researchers and entrepreneurs think?

didier bazile Didier Bazile, French researcher of the cultivation of quinoa, defends that to promote the agricultural employment and the scientific agro-ecology is a safe alternative to feed humanity. 

The five most important crops are the wheat, corn, rice, potatoes and sorghum. The quinoa is a minor crop though nowadays half of the world’s countries cultivate or experiment with quinoa. To protect the rights of the farmers and countries, the international agreements on plant genetic resources normalize legally the traffic of the seeds. These agreements may pose obstacles to the exchange of seeds between the institutions that want to test and adapt the plant out of its zone of origin. The quinoa entered Europe at the beginning of 2000. In the case of Greece, Italy or Spain as alternative crop to tobacco. The farmer of Southern Europe interested in starting the cultivation of quinoa finds certain obstacles because there are few adaptive seed varieties and in addition, only the seeds proceeding from the universities of Holland and Copenhagen are authorized for the commercialization in the European Union. In France and Belgium both farmers and university research groups and private companies, they work together to transfer the knowledge and advice in purchasing seeds.

francisco Francisco García Jiménez, farmer of Madrigal de las Altas Torres (Ávila, Spain).

This farmer native of Ávila has projected a ‘processing plant’ to settle the Chenopodium quinoa in the community of Castilla y León. With this project he tries to create both direct and indirect jobs in the region and to avoid the depopulation. According to Francisco, the cultivation of quinoa can become an alternative to the traditional agriculture and for that reason he contacted the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina. In his trip to Peru he collected several quinoa seeds in order to experiment in their fields and in addition, the universities Complutense and Politécnica of Madrid took care of the nutritional and agricultural assessment of this project. In its place of origin, the quinoa is cultivated to 4.000 meters of altitude, the Francisco’s processing plant is placed to 800 meters above sea level and with a thermal oscillation of 20 degrees of difference between day and night. Expenditure relating to the cultivation of quinoa are similar to the most common cereals in the community. Nevertheless, it’s important to find suitable herbicides for this species because in the native lands the farmers don’t use chemical products due to the low cost of labor. At harvest the results of the project are checked. First, the farmer chooses the plants that have better adapted into the field and then the agronomy laboratory adapts this species to the local culture and the nutrition laboratory analyzes their nutritional qualities. In order for a profitable harvest is necessary an average yield of 3,000 to 5,000 kl of grain per hectare.

AlsurjoseAlsur – The family Enterprise Sola of Antequera maintains contact with Peru for 20 years. Jose Jiménez, started a business venture two decades ago opening a factory in Arequipa and other one in Cusco (Perú) to produce asparagus, piquillo peppers and artichoke. Not long ago, through his company in Màlaga , he decided to try the cultivation of quinoa. The results were good, the plants have been adapted perfectly to the climate and soil of the zone and as Jiménez declared: “… in Perú or Bolivia suffer problems with plagues of insects and of fungi, but the driest and warm climate of Spain has proven to be perfect to cultivate the quinoa …”

Exactly,  on April, 2015 the  Diario Sur newspaper published an article on the initiation of construction of the first quinoa processing plant in Málaga. Alsur agrees with 200 farmers of Màlaga (Vega of Antequera) and Sevilla (Lebrija’s zone) the cultivation of more than 1.500 hectares of this pseudocereal of which two thirds in irrigation and a third in dryness. The harvest, approximately ten million kilos of grain, is exported already processed to the United States. The production per hectare is from 4.000 to 6.000 kilos.

The processing, storage and packaging plant is in the same place of the cannery, at kilometer 520 of the Córdoba-Málaga road. In this installation the impurities of the quinoa are eliminated and the grain is calibrated. Another machine classifies the grains for colors and finally the grains are dried for removal of moisture. Alsur has imported the seeds from Perú. The farmers who have signed agreements with the company will get 60 cents for kilo of grain. Alsur puts the seed and the sowing,  as well as expert technical advice on cultivation.

factoría de Algosur en Los PalaciosFollowing this same line, a Sevillian company has bet also for the culture of quinoa. Algosur has researched for years and possesses a plant seed selection and another to process the grain. The quinoa is packed in big-bag of up to a ton or in bags of 250 grams to thousand kilos. The packings are exported principally to The United States, England, Germany and Italy. The plant has created jobs in the locality.

The cultivation of quinoa became popular when FAO declared 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa.

agricultores 13Following on from all the information obtained by the researches and for the farmers and companies who have dared to cultivate quinoa, we might conclude that the culture of quinoa in the Mediterranean eco-region is possible and profitable. The main problem for an entrepreneur is the agricultural legal framework of the European Union.

Currently only some Europa’s countries sell the seed of quinoa authorized by the EU for the culture, commercialization and consumption in the countries of the union. The plots of quinoa proceeding from seeds “not included” in the European legal framework must basically export  their entire production. Maybe that is one of the reasons which many farmers work their lands exclusively for foreign horticultural companies, specially of the USA, but if we also take into consideration the highest cost to undertake an agricultural exploitation of these characteristics we can understand that the  quinoa cultivation hasn’t been developed more in the countries of Europa’s south.

More about quinua →   SESAN / FAO


Photos: cited in the text; place the cursor on each image without pressing.
Author: RODRÍGUEZ, María

[1] According to some findings in Ayacucho’s area in Peru, it has been estimated that domestication began about 5,000 years B.C.