2016 26.3 Breeding Quinoa for Organic Farming

The Beginnings of Evolutionary Participatory Breeding Research
in Western Washington and Preliminary Results


Farmers and consumers alike often seek out a unique heirloom variety or a new crop to try out in the field or on their plates. Quinoa, a crop cultivated for thousands of years in South America, is having its time in the spotlight on grocery shelves worldwide. If successfully harvested and processed, farmers can sell quinoa for a high price per pound to consumers willing to pay a premium to enjoy a gluten-free pseudocereal high in protein and containing all essential amino acids (Repo-Carrasco et al., 2003).

Quinoa is in the Amaranthaceae family along with garden favorites spinach and beets as well as the not-so-beloved weed lambsquarters. Adding quinoa to farm rotations increases biological diversity as well as income diversity, but as a crop with a short history of being grown in the United States, both farmers and researchers are still sorting out how to best raise quinoa. Of a survey recently conducted of 246 organic farmers in Washington, only 8% have grown quinoa in the past and a promising 49% are interested in trying their hands at growing quinoa in the next five years (Detjens and Golberger, 2016).

As the demand for local grains and nutrient-dense foods like quinoa continues to increase, farmers will need a suite of quinoa varieties to select from to match their climate, soils, and farming practices. Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seeds in Philomath, Oregon has been breeding quinoa over the past decade and produced six varieties that are suited to his maritime climate. These varieties have much potential for commercial production in environments similar to his. Many other U.S. seed companies sell quinoa seed—and if it isn’t seed of Frank Morton’s varieties, then you might be buying seed adapted in the fields of White Mountain Farm in Mosca, Colorado or varieties and landraces brought to the U.S. from lowland Chile.

At Washington State University (WSU), members of the Sustainable Seed Systems Lab are working with Olympic Peninsula farmers to develop new quinoa varieties using an Evolutionary Participatory Breeding (EPB) method. For a more resilient farm agroecosystem that exhibits greater crop yield stability, an effort should be made to increase genetic variability both within and between crop cultivars (Chakraborty and Newton, 2011). Many monocultures are planted with cultivars bred to have major genes for disease resistance; yet this provides a suitable environment for strong selection of pathogen populations that can overcome the genetic resistance (Pangga et al., 2011). Heterogeneous cropping systems, however, have the potential to adapt to an evolving pathogen (Huang et al., 1994; Chakraborty and Newton, 2011).

At WSU, breeding schemes begin with evolutionary breeding because it preserves a high degree of genetic variation in the resulting variety. Evolutionary breeding, a scheme so simplistic it has a DIY feel about it, involves four major steps: (1) creation of genetic diversity (often through making crosses), (2) multiplication of the seed of the original cross and the mixing in seed of other crosses if more than one is used in the new population you are creating, (3) the sowing and harvesting of the population in multiple agroecosystems over multiple years without any human selection and simply allowing natural selection to occur in the population, (4) the use of the seed for food or feed production or for future breeding purposes (Döring et al., 2011).

The participatory element of WSU’s quinoa breeding scheme includes local farmers who have been growing the crop or who are interested in growing it in the future. These farmers bring the knowledge of their climate, farming practices, agricultural pests, and crop diseases when helping WSU make the first round of selections in the evolving quinoa populations. Researchers and farmers recognize that organic and low-input cropping systems require specific traits that allow the crop to outperform weeds and better resist disease and pests.

To effectively compete with weeds, breeders look to develop varieties with rapid juvenile growth and subsequent early cover and shading of the soil (Lammerts van Bueren et al., 2002). Traits to select for include taller varieties (Drews et al., 2009) and mechanisms that enhance nutrient-use efficiency (Wolfe et al., 2008, Lammerts van Bueren et al., 2011). Varieties which express traits that increase nutrient-use efficiency, such as vigorous and deeper root systems and the ability to form mycorrhizal associations, have been found to not only improve yield potential but also indirectly lower pathogen and weed population levels (Van Delden, 2001). Though crop dependent, particular plant architecture traits can reduce fungal diseases (Lammerts van Bueren et al., 2002). These types of traits require greater attention in organic systems and are not often present in varieties used for high input conventional agriculture (Murphy et al., 2007).

With the quinoa breeding project, WSU is looking to see how much of an effect the participatory element has on its quinoa breeding populations. The aim is to study the differences between two breeding methods: Evolutionary Breeding (EB ) and Evolutionary Participatory Breeding (EPB). Is it worth the time of the farmers and researchers to critically analyze quinoa plots and make selections, or does the evolutionary process conduct a more effortless and efficient round of selection?

Materials and Methods

2016 is the second year of the breeding project collaboration with local farmers on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. Trial entries include six parent quinoa lines and six breeding populations planted in a randomized complete block design with three replicates for each breeding method treatment. The EB treatment populations have no human selection pressure. The EPB treatment populations from 2015 had eight farmers and three researchers walk through and critically observe the maturing quinoa breeding populations. Participants removed plants they disliked and tagged plants that displayed desirable traits. These tagged quinoa plants were harvested separately from the main trial in 2015 and were planted in the spring of 2016 in head rows to identify high performing selections. The initial quinoa crossing events that created the six populations used in this study were performed in 2012 and the populations, including three other populations not included in this study, were grown out at the F3 generation on the Olympic Peninsula without human selection in 2014.

In 2015, the study had three trials sited on organic farms in western Washington, eastern Oregon, and northwestern Idaho. Due to high temperatures resulting in pollen sterility, pest pressure, and disease, only the Chimacum, WA trial was successfully harvested. The 2016 trials are on organic farms in Chimacum, Quilcene, and Sequim, WA. Each year, fields are prepped by the farmers, no fertilizer is applied at sowing or during plant growth, and trials are sown, cultivated, and harvested by the researchers. Fertilizer is not applied to these trials as WSU is breeding for low-input systems and observing which genotypes perform well in agroecosystems with organic nutrient management. Each research plot is 16’x4,’ into which quinoa is planted in three rows spaced at 16” from center using a Wintersteiger Plot Seeder at a seeding rate of 12lbs/acre. In both 2015 and 2016, there was poor to no emergence of several quinoa trials due to a combination of being planted too deep (more than 0.5 inches), rough and cloddy seedbeds, and rainfall that created soil crusting. These trials were resown by hand to ensure shallow seed placement.

The sole surviving trial of 2015 was at an organic farm in Chimacum, WA at an elevation of 164ft, an average yearly rainfall of 28”, a 2015 total precipitation during trial duration of 2.9”, and only one day over 90˚F (92˚F on July 19). The trial was planted on April 15, 2015 and harvested on August 26, 2015. The trial was in the ground for 133 days with a total of 2024 growing degree days (base temperature of 32˚F). The field was previously in two years of rye cover crop. The 2015 farmer selection sessions at the Chimacum, WA site were held on July 21 and August 5. Farmer participants were surveyed to determine most important traits in a quinoa variety. Farmers selected high yield, disease resistance, pest resistance, sprouting resistance, lodging resistance, early maturity, and good flavor as important. The tagged plants were hand-harvested prior to August 26. The whole trial was harvested with a plot combine a few days before heavy rains hit the area. Sprouting resistance, therefore, was not noted. Seed was dried at 89°F and seed was cleaned using screens and a seed blower (Seed Processing Holland).

In 2016, the head rows of farmer selections were hand sown on April 8 in Quilcene and Chimacum, WA with successful emergence. The breeding methods trials in Quilcene and Chimacum, WA were mechanically planted on April 15, but failed to emerge. Trials were replanted by hand on May 9 and 10. The head rows and breeding methods trial at Sequim, WA were planted by hand on May 5. Breeding notes and trial maintenance is in progress and several farmer selections in the head rows have begun to flower as of June 7.

Preliminary Results

With one more season of data to collect, information can only be provided on how the 2015 trial performed. In the Evolutionary Participatory Breeding (EPB) treatment, two breeding populations were highest yielding in the trial and outperformed the parent lines (see Table 1). Overall yields were much lower than previous years of past quinoa trials at the Chimacum, WA site and this is likely due to lower rainfall and increasing pest populations. Table 1 displays information gathered on traits used when comparing breeding populations against parent lines, as well as used for comparing breeding methods.

Uniformly throughout the trial, tent caterpillars colonized developing inflorescences causing impaired inflorescence growth, lygus bugs were present in large populations, seed peck and bird fecal matter were observed, and aphids appeared as clusters on single plants and did not spread. Downy mildew (Peronospora variabilis) was observed when plants were young, only affecting lower leaves in early June 2015, and did not reoccur after leaves senesced. Between row and in row weeding was of high priority the first month of growth, as quinoa plants are slow growing at the beginning of the season and easily overwhelmed by aggressive weeds like chickweed, lambsquarter, mallow, and amaranth. The 2015 trial in Joseph, Oregon was planted twice and both plantings failed. Emergence of quinoa was inhibited by freezing temperatures, hail, and soil crusting for the first trial. Low-pressure overhead irrigation damaged and killed young seedlings in the second trial. Downy mildew severely damaged both trials and stem borers (Gelechiidae family) killed off the remaining plants. The 2015 trial in Lewiston, Idaho was also planted twice. The first trial failed to emerge due to freezing temperatures and soil crusting. The second trial experienced air temperatures greater than 100˚F during the flowering period causing pollen sterility resulting in no seed formation.


As evidenced from the many trials that failed to emerge, quinoa can be a difficult crop to grow from the get-go. In this research, quinoa self-selected the location WSU could successfully conduct breeding work. The rain shadow of the Olympic Peninsula provides a mild summer, a long growing season, and low enough precipitation not to encourage downy mildew. All is not perfect on the peninsula, however, as abiotic and biotic stresses continue to evolve these quinoa breeding populations. Temperatures over 90˚F will damage the pollen of flowering quinoa plants and cause flower abortion, and plants affected by this will not produce seed to be saved. Seeds that fail to emerge in imperfect seed beds select themselves out of the population. Disease-ridden and pest-laden plants will have diminished yield and their seed is diluted by the seed of more tolerant plants. Early rains in the fall will cause the sprouting of mature seed on some plants, rendering the seed unsuitable to be saved. As the 2016 growing season progresses, the natural pressures on the study’s breeding plots are welcomed as long as some seed remains to be resown!

Julianne Kellogg is a Master’s student in Crop Science at Washington State
University under the direction of Dr. Kevin Murphy. julianne.kellogg@wsu.edu.
Funding for this project was provided by Lundberg Family Farms.

Additional Resources

Chakraborty, S., and Newton, A. C. (2011). Climate change, plant diseases and food security: an overview. Plant Pathol. 60, 2–14. doi: 10.1016/j.jbiotec.2011.06.013

Detjens, A., and Golberger, J. (2016). Growing quinoa in Washington State: Results from a statewide survey about the experiences and perspectives of certified organic producers. (http://www.sustainableseedsystems.org/our-projects.html)

Döring, T. F., Knapp, S., Kovacs, G., Murphy, K. M., and Wolfe, M. S. (2011). Evolutionary plant breeding in cereals—Into a new era. Sustainability 3, 1944– 1971. doi: 10.3390/su3101944

Drews, S., D. Neuhoff, and U. KöPke. 2009. Weed suppression ability of three winter wheat varieties at different row spacing under organic farming conditions. Weed Res. 49(5): 526–533.

Huang, R., Kranz, J., and Welz, H. (1994). Selection of pathotypes of Erysiphe graminis f.sp. hordei in pure and mixed stands of spring barley. Plant Pathol 43:658-670

Lammerts van Bueren, E.T., P.C. Struik, and E. Jacobsen. 2002. Ecological concepts in organic farming and their consequences for an organic crop ideotype. Neth. J. Agric. Sci. 50(1): 1–26.

Lammerts van Bueren, E.T., S.S. Jones, L. Tamm, K.M. Murphy, J.R. Myers, C. Leifert, and M.M. Messmer. 2011. The need to breed crop varieties suitable for organic farming, using wheat, tomato and broccoli as examples: A review. NJAS – Wagening. J. Life Sci. 58(3-4): 193–205.

Murphy, K.M., K.G. Campbell, S.R. Lyon, and S.S. Jones. 2007. Evidence of varietal adaptation to organic farming systems. Field Crops Res. 102(3): 172–177.

Pangga, I., Hannan, J., and Chakraborty, S.. (2011). Pathogen dynamics in a crop canopy and their evolution under changing climate. Plant Pathol 60:70-81

Repo-Carrasco, R., Espinoza, C., and Jacobsen, S.-E. (2003). Nutritional value and use of the Andean crops quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) and kañiwa (Chenopodium pallidicaule). Food Rev. Int. 19, 179–189. doi: 10.1081/FRI – 120018884

Van Delden, A. 2001. Yielding ability and weed suppression of potato and wheat under organic nitrogen management.. Agron. J. 93:1370-1385. doi:10.2134/agronj2001.1370

Wolfe, M.S., J.P. Baresel, D. Desclaux, I. Goldringer, S. Hoad, G. Kovacs, F. Löschenberger, T. Miedaner, H. Østergård, and E.T. Lammerts van Bueren. 2008. Developments in breeding cereals for organic agriculture. Euphytica 163(3): 323–346.

Zevallos V. F., Herencia, L. I., and Ciclitira, P. J.(2015). “Quinoa, coeliac disease and gluten-free diet,” in State of the Art Report of Quinoa in the World in 2013, eds D. Bazile, D. Bertero, and C. Nieto (Rome: FAO/CIR AD), 300–313

Tags: cereal, Heirloom, Plant Breeding, Quinoa, Variety Trials