Written by Ellen Williams. This is the report from a 2020 BSPP Lockdown Bursary. Click here to read more/apply for one yourself.
In light of climate change and growing populations worldwide, as well as improving nutrient and water use efficiency to improve food security, it is crucial crops are protected from diseases. Chenopodium quinoa (quinoa) is an exceptionally nutritious and delicious food source whose cultivation for food security is attracting increasing international attention, especially since the United Nations general assembly declared 2013 as the ‘International Year of Quinoa’. In fact, the nutritional value of quinoa meets and surpasses recommendations by the World Health Organisation. The sustainable production methods of quinoa by indigenous Andean people has meant quinoa has been preserved in its natural state as food for present and future: the quinoa germplasm harbours vast genetic diversity allowing farmers to maintain productivity on poor soils under drought and high salinity, conditions predicted to become more prevalent worldwide with climate change.
However, the expansion of quinoa cultivation to other areas, including the UK, brings with it an extension of the spectrum and number of attacks by pests and diseases. Most common and well described is downy mildew, but even for this there is a distinct lack of information regarding its epidemiology. Similarly, there is a lack of information regarding other biotic threats quinoa is susceptible to, including pathogens, pests and weeds, from seedling damping off and leaf spot to susceptibility to moth, insect and bird attacks. I began investigations into this by working remotely with the Preston Lab at the University of Oxford, supervised by Prof. Gail Preston and PhD student Floren Scrafton.
I completed a comprehensive literature review of the biotic threats to quinoa cultivation worldwide, developing skills such as distilling and organising information, whilst creating a contact database of scientific and academic researchers, growers, breeders and farmers to query for further insights. By then condensing information into reports, I was able to highlight what further key knowledge requirements were needed and create personalised questionnaires for the contacts in my database. To obtain answers I set up video interviews over Teams with quinoa researchers and farmers from Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, USA, Netherlands, Denmark, and the UK, to collect the latest knowledge advancements and find out more information about specific studies they had conducted. With this information I created eleven information sheets on specific biotic threats, which will be available to download from the internet and be taken into the field so that people can use them as education tools as well as identification guides for surveying symptoms and problems in their fields. We hope this will increase the awareness of yield limitations to the quinoa crop and help farmers achieve high productivity in quinoa cultivation and food security.
This project was particularly exciting to complete in part because I was able to still gain experience and insight into careers in science and research during the COVID-19 lockdown period, but also because I was able to connect and collaborate with people from all over the globe. When reviewing the literature I could use and improve my basic Spanish skills, so that by the time the virtual Quinoa 2020 Symposium came about I could understand more of the Spanish speakers than I previously would have been able to. I really enjoyed exploring an area in plant sciences and pathology that has not received very much attention at all. It was also very satisfying to therefore feel as though I was significantly contributing to knowledge advancements in quinoa disease research, and supporting exciting ongoing research conducted by the Preston Lab.
I’d like to thank the BSPP for providing the funding for this project, my supervisors for providing me with this opportunity and all the collaborators who were able to complete questionnaires and were able to meet and discuss biotic threats to quinoa with me.