Cañahua deserves to come back
In the harsh and unpredictable upland plains of Peru and Bolivia, cañahua has flourished and diversified where few other crops can grow. The grain grows well between 3500 and 4100 m, and is highly resistant to frost, daright, salty soil and pests. Cañahua requires little care in the field, but harvesting and processing is laborious. Although the communities who live in this region have been growing cañahua for centuries, the area under cultivation is decreasing and the future of the crop is uncertain.
LEISA Magazine • 20.1 • March 2004In the harsh and unpredictable upland plains (altiplanos) of Peru and Bolivia, cañahua (Chenopodium pallidicaule) has flourished and diversified where few other crops can grow. The grain grows well between 3500 - 4100 m and is highly resistant to frost, drought, salty soil and pests. Cañahua requires little care in the field, but harvesting and processing is laborious.
Although the Aymara and Quechua communities who live in the region have been growing cañahua for centuries, the area under cañahua cultivation is decreasing and the future of the crop is uncertain.
A downward spiral
Indigenous Andean crops have been declining in importance ever since the time of Spanish colonization. Over the last 400 years new, foreign crops have been introduced and plants that have been the staple food of the poor for centuries have suffered a serious decline in social status. Traditional food ingredients of high quality have been, and continue to be, replaced by low-cost products such as rice and pasta. At the same time rural communities are being marginalized and pressured to grow other crops or so-called “improved” varieties. These negative impacts on the cultivation and consumption of indigenous Andean crops combined with socio-economic pressures such as urban migration and the absence of a steady market have further weakened their position.
In the past cañahua has been considered a weed, misrepresented as a wild variety of quinoa, and, when confused with this crop, even banned from agriculture. Cañahua has a great variety of local names depending on the region and its language as well as the plant’s variety and form. Some of the names by which it is known include isawalla hupa, ahara hupa, ajara, and cañahua in Aymara; cuchiquinua, ayara, quitacañagua, and kañagua in Quechua, and cañigua, cañagua, cañihua, or cañahua in Spanish. Its many names have only added to the confusion surrounding its identity and value, but at the same time they reflect its historical importance as a crop with a deep cultural value.
Cañahua is a highly variable, self-pollinating annual plant that can reach a height of 20 - 60 cm. It produces numerous seeds of about one millimetre in size and there are several varieties, each with their own plant shape and seed colour. Sowing is usually done by broadcasting unselected seed that may be a mixture of several different cañahua types. Depending on the variety or varieties used, the plant takes between 95 - 150 days to grow and mature.
Harvesting and post-harvesting processes such as threshing, sieving, airing, cleaning, and drying the seeds are time-consuming. However, quinoa, another Andean grain which has regained some popularity is also difficult to prepare and it does not have the advantage of cañahua whose seed coat contain only a low level of the bitter tasting saponins. This means it is quicker and cheaper to process cañahua into useable flour than it is to process quinoa.
In the high Andes, cañahua provides a reliable source of food and forage and also acts as a safety net when other crops fail. In the Department of Puno in southern Peru, cañahua is commonly grown alongside less hardy staple crops like potatoes and cereals. Although the resilient cañahua plant is primarily grown as a food crop, the calcium rich leaves are an important supplementary source of animal feed, especially in droughtprone areas where forage and feed is often inadequate.
Culturally, cañahua grain has not been considered a substitute for potatoes or quinoa. Rather, it is valued as a supplement that enhances the taste, texture, and nutrition of other foods. In traditional food culture, the grain is most often converted into cañiwako flour that can be consumed with sugar, milk, and/or water, added to soups, or mixed with wheat flour to make bread, noodles, pastries, and snacks. Cañiwako flour and products with cañahua ingredients are marketed on a national scale in supermarkets, restaurants and street markets. The grain is also used to make a hot chocolate-type drink that is sold on the streets of cities such as Puno and Cuzco. Cañahua’s role as a supplement does not mean that it is unimportant in Andean food culture, on the contrary its high nutritional value is well recognized.
Cañahua also has medical properties. Pulverized cañahua seeds dissolved in a water-vinegar mixture are used to treat typhoid fever, and toasted cañiwako is regarded as being an effective counter to altitude sickness and dysentery. Cañahua flour can be consumed by people who are allergic to gluten and who cannot eat products made with wheat, rye, barley or oats. In addition, the ash from its stalks and stems can be used as an insect repellent. Indigenous Bolivian and Peruvian highlanders burn the residual biomass from threshed grain and use the ash produced to make llipta, a calcium-rich paste used by coca-leaf chewers.
Cañahua’s high nutritional value together with its medicinal properties have contributed to its survival despite increasingly unfavourable socioeconomic circumstances. The grain is an important source of protein and has traditionally been a vital alternative source to meat and milk products in the rural areas of the high Andes. Its balanced composition of amino acids is similar to the composition of the casein milk protein and traditionally it is used in weaning mixtures. The grain also has high levels of dietary fibre, iron, unsaturated fats, and sugar.
Studies are beginning to show that the decrease in traditional Andean crop cultivation and use is having a negative health effect on rural communities in the region. Infants and children are no longer getting the nutrients provided by the traditional Andes diet, and changing food habits in general have led to an increase in obesity, diabetes, and arteriosclerosis amongst adults. High levels of anaemia (a blood disorder) due to iron deficiency have been found among women in the highland plains of Peru, a condition that could be cured if cañahua and Vitamin C - to help the body absorb the additional iron - were added to their diets.
A secure future for cañahua diversity depends on its continued use. This in turn depends upon the recognition and affirmation of the crop’s nutritional, economic, and cultural benefits. One essential component of cañahua “revitalization” is the promotion of its consumption and the development of a strategy that would support its cultivation. Educational campaigns that make urban and rural people aware of the importance of Andean food products need to be developed and implemented. Local institutions like mothers’ clubs, communal dining centres, and local schools can play an important role in promoting crops like cañahua.
Variability of cañahua seeds. Photo: W. Rojas
Changes are also necessary at policy level. The modification of national food policy in order to be more supportive of Andean crops is important. If government agencies guaranteed minimum prices to producers and regular price-controlled supplies to consumers, cañahua would have a better market chance. Also, international and nationally administered food aid programmes should base their activities on local food products and not on poor quality leftovers from developed countries. This would have a strengthening rather than a destabilizing effect on local production.
The decreased use of cañahua is in part due to limited access and supply. According to Macedo (2003), the production of Andean grains and tubers is insufficient to meet increasing urban demand and as a result consumers have turned to industrialized food products. This is particularly so in urban centres where indigenous people, who have recently migrated from the rural areas, may want to buy traditional products but are frustrated by inadequate and infrequent supplies, the poor selection and high prices. It can be concluded that any strategy for the conservation of cañahua genetic diversity must include mechanisms that ensure constant and affordable supplies.
In spite of centuries of neglect, cañahua has maintained its functional identity as a tasty and nutritious supplementary ingredient to many Andean dishes and drinks. Sadly, this identity is fading. Studies that locate the cultural factors that have led to decreased cultivation and consumption of cañahua are urgently needed. Future scientific research and commercial development on cañahua varieties must be done in culturally relevant and respectful ways. Intensive production and/or monocultures of cañahua would misrepresent its functional identity in Andean food culture. Regardless of how much scientific, legal, and marketing improvements are made, cañahua will not flourish without the cultural support of its producers and users.
Recognition of cañahua as a neglected and underutilized crop is well overdue. However, any attempt to increase availability through commercialization that depends on the exploitation of only a few varieties is undesirable. This would have a negative effect on attempts to protect and use the full range of the plant’s genetic diversity. It would be ironic if cañahua varieties that are so resilient to the natural elements should perish from neglect or too much favouritism.
Adriana Woods Páez and Pablo Eyzaguirre
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- National Research Council, 1989. Lost crops of the Inca’s: Little-known plants of the Andes with promise for worldwide cultivation. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.
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