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Quinoa plant is too good for its own good

Professor dedicated to the protection of the indigenous crop quinoa in the Andes

Drought, frost, and salt tolerant, quinoa (pronounced ‘key-noo-ah’…ed) isn’t your average crop. It has been cultivated by Andean farmers for thousands of years. And it can grow up to 4000 metres altitude. It is also known for its healthy high plant protein content.

In 1985 Sven-Erik Jacobsen fell in love with it.

After finishing his Master’s degree he was hired by a company interested in bringing new crops to Denmark. His job was to field test quinoa under Danish conditions, and show the demonstration plots to farmers.

Spreaded the quinoa gospel

»One thing is to work with Danish and European agriculture, but I became increasingly interested in the origins of quinoa,« Jacobsen says.

After his PhD, Jacobsen began working with the International Potato Centre in Lima, Peru. In Peru, Jacobsen found that while quinoa was being cultivated everywhere around him, it was completely unknown as an object of plant research. No one was working with the crop. No one shared his new found passion.

He convinced the director of the Centre to let him focus on quinoa. Straight away he began promoting quinoa in Denmark and South America. He spread the gospel of the wonder seed through newspaper articles and interviews.

Wonder crop

But with the increased international popularity of the seed – something that is also an indirect side-effect of Jacobsen and his colleagues’ efforts – there has been a loss of biodiversity in the Andes. A once integrated system of livestock and crops has slowly become an intensified monoculture of quinoa.

Jacobsen is concerned. However, he thinks the solution lies in using traditional knowledge to adapt and increase the plant’s productivity, so less land will give the same produce. He also believes that a value must be placed on biodiversity in order to protect it.

Between teaching at the Tåstrup campus, Jacobsen spends as much of his time in South America as possible. He works with farmers to help improve their techniques, and has been involved with bringing quinoa to the menus of restaurants in Lima.

Study what you love

Sitting in his small office laden with colourful posters of the orphan plant, Jacobsen reflects on his long-term commitment.

»Your desire has to be burning. It is important to study something you love. Some students want to study agriculture in the lab, but this is not how it should be.«

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