Scientists in Sweden and Bolivia have teamed up to investigate whether residues from the Latin American country’s production of quinoa—the health food that helped a good number of poor Andean farmers to a higher standard of living in the early-to-mid 2000s, but with overproduction and falling prices in its wake—can be turned into biorefinery products such as renewable ethanol, bio-based polymers or so-called biopesticides.
In essence, the Swedish and Bolivian researchers will pool their expertise in biochemical conversion of recalcitrant lignocellulosic materials, on the one hand, and in microbial biodiversity and agricultural conditions of the high Altiplano of the Andes, the high planes of the mountain range that straddles Bolivia and Peru, on the other. The scientists will start where food production stops, that is once the edible quinoa seeds have been separated from the rest of the quinoa plant and what is left are the stalk and seed coats.
According to Martín, researcher at Umeå University, currently the residues are either burnt for energy or disposed of as waste, and more often than not they are considered as being a problem.
Three tracks towards end products
Three parallel process tracks are envisaged: One each for pre-treatment and conversion of the residues into ethanol or polymers. The third track will start with an extraction of active agents from the seed coats for further processing into biopesticides.
“In Bolivia, quinoa production has lost a lot value in the last years… By running the project, we will contribute to solving social problems in poor regions of a poor country”, said Martín, himself a native of Cuba, the Caribbean island nation.
“In Bolivia and Peru they are growing quinoa and it is generating a lot of residues. They have environmental problems created by these residues [and by the intensive use of synthetic pesticides]. We intend to contribute to solving the environmental problems, while adding value to those products”, he added.
Health craze that brought unintended consequences
The demand for quinoa, which edible part the seed is rich in protein but free of gluten, exploded in the early-to-mid 2000s, with the United Nations naming 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa and with Bolivian exports in 2015 totaling $35 billion, corresponding to 29,000 tonnes of quinoa products, half of which went to the U.S.A. These were exports from a country in which 45 percent of the population still live below the global poverty line. Most of the people in this percentile get by on subsistence farming.
According to the scientists' well-researched funding application, the boom pushed farmers in rural areas of Bolivia and Peru, on the high Altiplano of the Andean mountain range where quinoa traditionally is grown, to switch from farming of a variety of crops to monocultures of quinoa. As a result, the average standard of living of the farmers rose and economic benefit spilled onto the economy in a wider sense. Analysts were warning, however, that Bolivia should not rely on this one crop only as a way to reach economic prosperity, but start rapidly to develop other sectors of the economy. Meanwhile, more countries were starting to produce quinoa and, today, the U.S.A. is the second largest producer behind Bolivia itself.
The result, according to project leader Martín, is an overproduction of quinoa and a fall in the market price. Many of the Altiplano farmers have responded by hoarding quinoa stocks, waiting for prices to rise, but also facing environmental problems that have come in the wake of years of monoculture sustained by the use of synthetic pesticides. New laws have been passed in an attempt to lessen their impacts, the researchers’ project application says, but the problem of depleted agricultural soils remains.
Commercialisation a ways off
And so now a group of researchers on the research and development platform Bio4Energy Biopolymers and Biochemical Conversion Technologies, and at the UMSA Institute of Research and Development of Chemical Processes (IIDEPROQ) are hoping to come forth with schemes that, with further development could be commercialised and used to add value to Bolivian quinoa production and perhaps also alleviate environmental problems that it has brought about historically and, most notably, during the last decades.
The conversion of the feedstock to bio-based polymers will be performed with the help of a recently discovered bacterial strain that is salt resistant and which turns out so-called exopolysaccharides.
"We are going to assess the potential of industrial application. Maybe the biopolymers will be for pharmaceutical use, maybe they will be for food use.
“Active compounds will be extracted with solvents from the seed coats, and out of the them we are planning to produce the biopesticides”, to believe Martín.
Figure: Quinoa residue biorefinery scheme, invented by Carlos Martín, Cristhian Carrasco and Leif Jönsson. Figure by courtesy of Carlos Martín Medina.
Carlos Martín Medina - Bio4Energy
Leif Jönsson - Bio4Energy
Sandra Winestrand - Bio4Energy/Billerud-Korsnäs
Universidad Mayor de San Andrés
Cristhian Carrasco - Institute of Research and Development of Chemical Processes