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Once a skeptic, Paiwan woman keeping family's quinoa legacy alive

2017/05/22 17:58:04

Photo courtesy of Agriculture and Food Agency

By CNA reporter Kuo Chu-chen and staff writer Elizabeth Hsu

Chang Chih-yun (張誌紜) had a good career going, having worked as a physical therapist at a hospital for 17 years. But that did not stop her from quitting this year to keep a promise she made to cultivate a grain she grew up hating and continue a family tradition.

Chang now devotes her time to growing quinoa, which in Taiwan is a traditional aboriginal crop, on her family's land in Sandimen Township of Pingtung County and carry on the family legacy left by her grandmother, a wine brewer in their tribal community.

The 37-year-old from the Paiwan community, one of 16 officially recognized indigenous peoples in Taiwan, grew up in quinoa fields, she says, recalling watching her grandmother plant the crop from when she was little.

Back then, Chang was not a fan of the grain, and even came to intensely dislike it because of the time she had to spend keeping an eye on the family's harvest as it dried in the sun, she remembers.

But her grandmother, who is now approaching 100 years old, always promoted quinoa as a useful traditional crop of Taiwan's aboriginal peoples and firmly believed it would one day become popular.

Chang remembers her grandmother telling her that the local version of quinoa was one of the best substances for triggering chemical reactions when brewing millet wine, a traditional aboriginal beverage in Taiwan.

"Grandma insisted that the plant had good qualities and was a crop that people would always have a use for," Chang says, repeating the argument her grandmother made to try to persuade her granddaughter to carry on the quinoa-growing tradition.

The argument failed to resonate with Chang, who refused to believe that quinoa could ever offer anything of value. But perhaps to humor her grandmother, Chang promised that if there were people willing to buy it, she would be willing to continue cultivating it on the family's land, to the point of quitting her job.

Chang was 23 years old at the time and never imagined that scientific research would eventually reveal the many benefits of the little grain and trigger demand for it, she says.

(Chang Chih-yun; Photo courtesy of Agriculture and Food Agency)

In 2007, a research team headed by National Pingtung University of Science and Technology food science professor Tsai Pi-jen (蔡碧仁) studied Formosan quinoa (Chenopodium formosanum Koidz), a variation endemic to Taiwan that is much smaller than other quinoa grains found around the world and comes in red, yellow and orange colors.

What the team found is that Formosan quinoa had astonishing nutritional value compared with other commonly consumed grains in Taiwan, including rice and millet -- a discovery that suddenly drew attention to the aboriginal crop and kindled consumer interest.

According to the research team's findings, Formosan quinoa is 14.4 percent protein, not too far off beef's 19.6 percent, and it has 50 times as much calcium per unit of weight as rice, and 2.3 times the magnesium and 12 times the potassium found in oats.

Formosan quinoa also has six times the dietary fiber found in sweet potatoes and three times that found in oats. Moreover, it contains all nine essential amino acids that humans cannot synthesize, including lysine, which helps keep calcium in the body, synthesizes collagen and produces antibodies, hormones and enzymes.

(Photo courtesy of Agriculture and Food Agency)

In February 2017, Taipei Medical University's School of Nutrition and Health Sciences pushed the value of Formosan quinoa to a higher level by publishing a study showing that the grain can help suppress early pathological changes that signal colon cancer.

The results of animal tests showed that such pathological changes in sick mice were successfully stopped 10 weeks after they were fed Formosan quinoa, according to Shih Chun-kuang (施純光), an associate professor who was part of the research team that conducted the animal trial.

"Before a tumor forms, there will first be pathological changes," Shih said. "There are many active constituents in Taiwanese quinoa, such as dietary fiber and some phenolic compounds, which are likely what helped stop the changes."

Eyeing the market potential of Formosan quinoa, Chen Chen-yi (陳振義), an associate researcher at the government-supported Taitung District Agricultural Research and Extension Station, began about eight years ago to encourage aboriginal farmers in Taitung County to grow the plant.

They were probably as skeptical as Chang was listening to her grandmother, because the grain at the time was nothing more than a sub-crop planted on the sides of millet fields to help brew millet wine and for use in aboriginal rituals.

But Chen did pick up some followers. "Eight years ago, there was less than eight hectares in Taitung devoted to quinoa farming," Chen said in an interview with local media in April. "Now the scale has grown to 150 hectares," he said.

Despite the growth, Chen said he hoped that more indigenous tribes will join in.

In Pingtung, the scale of farmland devoted to the cultivation of Formosan quinoa had reached around 70 hectares as of May 2017, according to Yao Chih-wang (姚志旺), director of the Southern Branch of the Agriculture and Food Agency.

He pledged to push the scale of cultivation to 100 hectares this year, considering how good business can be.

According to Council of Agriculture data, the purchase price of Formosan quinoa with its hull has surged from NT$40 (US$1.33) per kilogram in 2008 to NT$180-220 per kilo in 2017.

The price for the grain without the hull has climbed to NT$500-550 per kilo at the wholesale level, and over NT$600 per kilo at the retail level.

The high prices reflect in part the highly labor intensive process needed to harvest Formosan quinoa, with five people needed for eight hours to harvest 0.1 hectare of farmland, according to the Taitung District Agricultural Research and Extension Station.

Though Chang never figured the grain would amount to anything, the plant's high nutritional value and growing market demand was evidence enough for her to keep her promise to her grandmother and return to farm her family's land, first part-time and then full-time starting this year.

She has also convinced more than two dozen family members and relatives to join in the cultivation of the grain, called "djulis" in the Paiwan language.

Her family and relatives' Formosan quinoa fields now cover over 10 hectares of land, spreading across Sandimen, Majia and Changji townships in Pingtung. Her relatives in Taitung have also begun growing Formosan quinoa there, Chang says.

It may have taken some convincing, but Chang is now all in on growing the increasing lucrative crop.

As she put it: "My family has been growing djulis for over 70 years. Now I have a sense of duty not to let our fields of djulis disappear."