Growing quinoa in Ladakh

“Quinoa.” The first time I encountered this word was in 2015 during a conversation with my cousin. As a student of agriculture, I felt ashamed about my lack of knowledge about this crop. However, I didn’t expect quinoa or Chenopodium quinoa to become one of the finest and most satisfying experiences of my life.

As I became aware of its unusual nature, the agriculturist in me was curious to know more about it. After carrying out some initial research, I was intrigued and decided to carry out a field trial to check its viability in Ladakh.

Quinoa (Quechua kinwa or Kinuwa) is an herbaceous annual plant, which is grown primarily for its edible seed. The leafy portion is also edible as quinoa is related to spinach and amaranth. It was first used as animal fodder around 5,000 to 2,000 years back. Later, it was domesticated by humans in Peru and Bolivia.

As I conducted more research, I realised that this magical crop has immense unexplored potential and is well suited for Ladakh’s topography and climate. Ideal conditions include sandy loamy soil, temperatures must not exceed 32 degrees Celsius and is known to grown till altitudes of 4,000m above mean sea level.

Quinoa is rich in proteins, fibres, vitamins and minerals, and low on carbohydrates. It is ideal to add more nutrients to our diet along with traditional crops such as wheat, barley and buckwheat, which have high carbohydrate content. The leafy portions of the plant are rich in iron, which helps prevent anaemia and is an important aspect of the treatment of scurvy. A soup made from the seeds is known to help prevent tuberculosis. We can use quinoa as a substitute for high carbohydrate crops such as wheat and rice.

Quinoa has been globally recognised in the fitness and health sectors for its nutritional properties especially its high protein, fibre and ash content with comparatively less carbohydrates. This makes it ideal for weight-loss and muscle gain.

A cup of quinoa provides twice as much protein and about 5 gm more fibre than the same amount of white rice. In Ladakh, we can use quinoa as a substitute for rice and oatmeal. Quinoa also blends well with healthy bread. Similarly it can also be added to soup to increase its nutritional value multi-fold. The green leaves of the plant can be served as a nutritional salad. Quinoa seeds can also be mixed in local Ladakhi Kulchas (cookies) to make it even more delicious and nutritious. In the summer, they can also be added to smoothies to create new tastes and flavours. In addition, farmers can use the other by-products from the plant as fodder for their livestock.

The seeds of quinoa have an outer powdery covering called Saponins, which protects the seeds from insects and pests. Saponin was earlier regarded as a waste by-product but it turned out to have great potential for us in the pharmaceutical sector to make products such as soaps, detergents, cosmetics as well as in preparation of beer and production of fire extinguishers.

I carried out my field trial in 2016 by growing quinoa in Hundar, Nubra valley. I learnt that transplanting is the most effective way to sow this plant. However, I lacked the manpower and funds and instead opted for line-sowing. I used about 15 to 20 kg of seeds and 15 to 20 tonnes of farmyard manure to sow one hectare of land. The seeds start to germinate after a week. The plant sprouts grow rather slowly initially but eventually shoot up to and grow to over three feet in height. The plant needs proper spacing to ensure that they do not have to struggle or compete for nutrients, water and sunlight. It helps to weed the plant twice. The first weeding must be done after two to three weeks and the second after 45 days. Thinning is also done after about two to three weeks of sowing in such a way that the distance between each row is about 50cm.

The quinoa plant is drought-resistant and needs only about 25 to 30cm of irrigation per year. The watering is usually done in about 10 days intervals but the frequency depends on the soil condition. Harvesting is done after 120 to 150 days i.e. four to five months, when it shows signs of having matured. On maturity, the leaves turn yellow and start to fall off, leaving only dried seed heads on the stalk. The production of quinoa in Ladakh is about 4,000 kg per hectare. In India, quinoa is now grown in Rajasthan, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, and Uttarakhand though the productivity is comparatively higher in Ladakh.

The quinoa plant can provide a viable alternative crop to mitigate droughts caused by climate change. It can be grown instead of other water intensive crops during periods of water scarcity. Quinoa not only provides high nutrient value but also helps us conserve water.

As a student of agriculture, I believe that we must explore the potential of growing quinoa. The upcoming generation could harness its potential to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Most importantly, quinoa is a much healthier and sustainable crop as compared to water-intensive plants that are currently being introduced and grown in Ladakh. Quinoa has one of the highest economic and nutritional values as compared to other crops. It has immense potential to uplift our economy in a sustainable way while also providing us with an unparalleled source of nutrition.

Photograph and text by Tsewang Nurbu

Tsewang Nurbu completed his B. Sc in Agriculture from Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology, Jammu.