Tucked between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, the Aral Sea once had a large fishing industry. It was the fourth largest lake in the world with an area of 68,000 sq. km. But it has been drying up since the 1960s.
The shrinking of the lake has killed the fishing industry and severely affected the climate of the region, forming a new desert called Aralkum on the seabed once occupied by the Aral Sea. Already an arid zone with scarce water resources, the lack of water has contributed to growing salinization of the soils and water resources in irrigated areas, increasing the food insecurity, escalating the health issues of rural communities and giving rise to infectious diseases.
According to FAO figures, 2 million people are undernourished in the Aral Sea region; 53 percent of children have vitamin A deficiency and 24 percent of adults do not receive enough zinc. The World Bank’s 2016 report states that 36 percent of women and 37 percent of children under five suffer from anemia.
As major crops cannot withstand high levels of soil and water salinity and lack of water, local and international research organizations are looking for alternatives that are both resilient and nutritious.
The International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) is also trying to test and introduce suitable crops in the region. ICBA has been working with its national partners to improve food and nutrition security in marginal areas of Uzbekistan by introducing salt-tolerant multi-purpose crops. The initiative, simultaneously rolled out in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, has been supported by the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB).
In the autumn of 2018, scientists in Uzbekistan have obtained their first large harvest of quinoa, a super crop that has been gaining popularity worldwide as a highly nutritious food. Along with potatoes, corn and other crops originated in South America, quinoa, known as the “golden grain of the Andes”, was one of the main foods of the Andean peoples before the Incas.
“Quinoa is known not only for its nutritional properties,” Ms. Zulfiya Sultanova, a researcher of the Karakalpak Scientific Experimental Station of the Grains and Legumes Institute, says. “Its genetic diversity, adaptability to different agro-environmental conditions makes it stand out from other crops.”
During the two-year project, scientists and farmers in Uzbekistan have conducted the field trials of five improved salt- and drought-resistant quinoa varieties from ICBA’s gene bank under marginal conditions.
The improved lines were first tested in different agroecological zones from Tashkent Region and the Syrdarya River basin to sandy soils of the Kyzylkum desert. A special focus was made on the introduction of quinoa in marginal lands of the Aral Sea area, a region with low-yielding and extremely saline soils.
"Some 70 to 80 percent of lands in Karakalpakstan are saline. Quinoa is an undemanding and low-cost crop that does not require much water and is tolerant of harsh agricultural and environmental conditions. Our goal was to assess quinoa in arid and saline lands, which are unsuitable for agriculture,” Dr. Kristina Toderich, ICBA Regional Coordinator in Central Asia and the Caucasus, says.
“It has high content of zinc, iron, copper and other nutrients, and is especially useful for people with anemia. Quinoa seeds are used for making flour, they are added to soups, salads, drinks and cereals,” she adds.
Cultivation of this alternative crop can be accessible to the local population, contributing to reduction of dependence on other staples like wheat and rice, strengthening the food security and providing income from exports. Quinoa’s green biomass is a nutritious feed for cattle, while stems are used as fuel.
“In the conditions of Uzbekistan, quinoa ripens in 95 to 110 days,” Dr. Kristina Toderich notes. “Tests of the improved lines from ICBA have proven that it can be grown with low costs. Resistance to soil salinity and low temperatures makes it possible to use quinoa as an intermediate crop with leguminous crops or in combination with other crops.”