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From soil degradation to regeneration: Jacha Inti’s journey towards sustainable quinoa production

The Southern Altiplano of Bolivia, renowned for its “Royal Quinoa” production, has witnessed a dramatic shift in agricultural practices following an increase in worldwide demand for the grain since 2008.

Small plots of organic quinoa, mainly for subsistence farming, have given way to larger-scale operations utilizing tractors and synthetic pesticides. This shift has significantly improved the livelihoods of over 40,000 farmers in this region, with their incomes rising to lift them out of extreme poverty. However, this transformation has also come at a cost, resulting in soil degradation, decreasing yields and the presence of synthetic pesticides in the majority of quinoa produced- putting at risk the competitiveness of Bolivian quinoa in the now globalized quinoa market. To address these challenges, Jacha Inti, a forward-thinking Bolivian quinoa processor and exporter, has embarked on a transformative journey towards Certified Regenerative quinoa production.

The Changing Landscape of Quinoa Production

Antes de 2004, la producción de quinua en el Altiplano Sur seguía prácticas tradicionales. Los agricultores sembraban la quinua a mano en laderas para proteger los cultivos de las heladas. La producción se limitaba a pequeñas parcelas de tierra, generalmente alrededor de 1 hectárea o 2.47 acres, y estaba destinada principalmente a la agricultura de subsistencia. Se empleaban métodos de agricultura orgánica, sin utilizar insumos sintéticos, y las parcelas de tierra estaban protegidas con cercas de piedra. Sin embargo, después de 2004, el calentamiento global creó condiciones favorables para que la quinua creciera en las tierras planas, lo que provocó un cambio significativo en las áreas de producción. Las explotaciones agrícolas se ampliaron, alcanzando entre 5 y 50 hectáreas (12 a 124 acres), y se consolidó la agricultura comercial. Los tractores y la labranza con disco se volvieron comunes, reemplazando los métodos tradicionales de siembra a mano. Desafortunadamente, esta transición también resultó en una reducción de los terrenos de pastoreo para llamas, una disminución en la población de llamas y una mayor dependencia de pesticidas y fertilizantes sintéticos importados.

Before 2004, quinoa production in the Southern Altiplano followed traditional practices. Farmers planted quinoa by hand by hillsides to protect the crop from frost. Production was limited to small plots of land, typically around 1 hectare or 2.47 acres, and primarily aimed at subsistence agriculture.

Organic farming methods were employed, with no synthetic inputs used, and parcels of land were protected by stone fencing. However, after 2004, global warming created conditions favorable for quinoa to grow in the flatlands, leading to a significant shift in production areas. Farm sizes expanded, reaching 5 to 50 hectares (12 to 124 acres), and commercial agriculture took hold. 

Tractors and disk tilling became common, replacing traditional hand planting methods. Unfortunately, this transition also resulted in reduced llama grazing grounds, a decline in the llama population, and an increased reliance on imported synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

Tackling the Core Issue: A Path Towards Sustainable Quinoa Production

The challenges became evident as quinoa yields declined, and once-arable lands transformed into arid, sandy landscapes resembling sand dunes. With an average annual rainfall of less than 10 inches per year (254 mm) and shifting rainfall patterns due to climate change, quinoa farming in the Southern Altiplano faces a significant threat. To address the concerns raised by farmers about crop losses to drought, Jacha Inti initiated an irrigation program in 2015 with the support of supply chain and finance partners such as Kellogg, Kashi, responsAbility Fund and ADM Cares.

The program successfully established five wells and irrigation systems, three of which were off-grid and equipped with solar panels. While providing relief to a few farmers near the wells, the scale of the challenge became apparent. Working with over 160 farms scattered across an area as large as 73,983 square kilometers, Jacha Inti recognized the need for a more comprehensive approach to address the deteriorating soil conditions. Conventional farming practices, such as the use of disk tillers and aggressive plowing, were causing erosion, loss of organic matter, and making the soil vulnerable to wind erosion. To respond to this emergency, Jacha Inti launched the «Soil Erosion Control Program.»

Combatting Erosion by Revitalizing the Soil

From 2018 to 2021, the ”Soil Erosion Control Program» introduced by Jacha Inti created 315 Demonstrative Farms including sites testing soil amendments, cover crops and windbreakers. Demonstrative farms served as models for sustainable quinoa production. Wind barriers using native “Thola” shrubs were erected to combat erosion and protect the quinoa fields. The program focused on reintroducing organic matter into the soil through soil amendments, including quinoa husks (previously discarded), straw, and llama dung. Additionally, a cover crop of native lupine was initially planted, but the program evolved to discover that grass plants like triticale and barley thrived in the region, serving as excellent fodder for llamas.

This shift towards regenerative practices not only addressed the immediate concerns of erosion and soil degradation but also deepened the understanding of the critical role soil health plays in overall plant vitality.

Location and example of number of parcels from one our of 169 smallholder farms in program.

The “Aha!” Moment: Discovering the Power of Soil Life

On average the inclusion of soil amendments boosted organic matter by 20% in demonstrative parcels.

Witnessing the transformative power of a small compost pile rejuvenating an entire field reaffirmed Jacha Inti’s commitment to working in symbiosis with the soil, harnessing its natural productivity and ecosystem balance.

In 2019, Jacha Inti experienced a groundbreaking revelation that revolutionized their approach to agriculture. Farmers who had composted a pile of quinoa husks and manure witnessed exceptional yields in their quinoa fields. Vibrant and resilient plants flourished, evoking memories of the productivity observed in earlier times. Community elders reminisced about farming quinoa on small plots, relying solely on the dung of llamas that grazed the land during the off-season. This remarkable outcome prompted Jacha Inti to consult soil scientists, who emphasized the essential relationship between soil health and plant vitality. This remarkable outcome prompted Jacha Inti to seek out soil experts.
“Agronomists and soil experts would go as far as measuring organic matter and soil minerals but we could not find anyone to guide us on how to measure life in the soil” notes Jose Santa Cruz, who leads Jacha Inti’s sustainability initiatives. At that moment, Swiss Contact provided financing for a course on “Soil Web” web. This study shed a light on how healthy soils foster a diverse community of living organisms such as beneficial bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa, microarthropods, insects, worms, and others, all contributing vital nutrients to plants in a predator/prey scheme (called the food web).

The realization that synthetic pesticides and fungicides were detrimental to both harmful and beneficial organisms reinforced the need for a new approach free from “chemical warfare,” fostering a harmonious coexistence between agriculture and the soil’s inherent capabilities.

From Conventional to Regenerative Agriculture

In the first half of the 1900s, researchers in Europe seeking to reduce diet-related illnesses began to uncover the link between our food and the health of the soil that plants grow on. When the world plunged into the two World Wars, instead of studying soil health scientists focused their efforts on developing industrially produced chemicals to combat the increasing issues farmers were facing. A war-like, chemical-based approach was taken to agriculture, with pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and fertilizers leading the charge.

Fast forward 70 years, and our world is still facing increasingly poor soils. The United Nations estimates that approximately 33% of the world’s soils are damaged, and that number is projected to increase by 2030. Today’s food supply is chemically-dependent, and the world is seeing record levels of diet-caused illnesses. Scientists, researchers, and leading food companies are once again turning to life in the soil as a solution to plant and consumer health. As a bonus, healthy soils are said to be powerful allies in reducing global warming as they capture millions of tons of carbon per year. This new approach of working in partnership with the creative force of nature is called “regenerative agriculture.”

One of the hallmarks of Regenerative Agriculture programs is that farmers no longer need external inputs. As such, they experience greater financial freedom, breaking free from the cycle of borrowing to purchase fertilizers or pesticides. This shift in agricultural practices is critical in the fragile ecosystem of the altiplano, where the boom in quinoa production has caused significant environmental consequences.

“Approximately one-third of the land in the region has already transitioned from marginal to desert due to the use of unsuitable technologies, such as disk tilling and synthetic pesticides and fertilizers,” points out Raúl Esprella, the company’s head agronomist in charge of organic and regenerative certifications for the company.

Jacha Inti is making a bold investment in regenerative agriculture to halt -and reverse- soil degradation in the southern altiplano.

The Future of Quinoa: Embracing Regenerative Agriculture

After 7 years of trials, Jacha Inti and a group of 6 smallholder grower associations in the Bolivian Southern Altiplano are finally reaching the Regenerative Organic Certification standards. Oscar Saavedra, the company’s CEO explains:

“This year (2023) farmers in the program will produce 1,800 tons of certified regenerative quinoa. That’s already 3% of Bolivia’s quinoa production and we are not stopping there. We want to prove this works at scale and that it’s the responsible way forward. It’s how smallholder farmers will gain an edge and remain competitive in the now globalized quinoa industry.”

The transition to regenerative involves all parts of the supply chain, from farmers to processors to food companies and even supermarkets. In Europe, Jacha Inti has enjoyed support from Rhumveld, a Dutch commodities trading house, guaranteeing a market for a large portion of the certified production as well as providing financial support over 3 years to assist the farmers in the transition to regenerative. In Bolivia, Jacha Inti can count on funders such as Capital + SAFI, who invest in the transition toward a sustainable economy.

By 2026, the farmers in the program will be independent, enjoy higher incomes with projected 50% higher yields, and close to no cost for inputs. Their production will also be considered a carbon sink, fixing atmospheric carbon into the soil. It will also protect farmers from the changing climate, as soil with more organic matter holds more water, reducing the impact of delayed rains.

Conclusion

In this journey from soil degradation to regeneration, Jacha Inti has discovered the transformative power of regenerative agriculture. By embracing practices that restore and nurture soil health, the company is not only revitalizing the land but also empowering smallholder farmers to thrive in the globalized quinoa industry. The three key takeaways from this journey are:

  1. Transformative Potential of Regenerative Agriculture: Regenerative agriculture offers a revolutionary approach to farming that focuses on restoring the health of the soil. Through practices that minimize synthetic inputs, promote biodiversity, and enhance soil fertility, farmers can reclaim degraded lands and build resilient agricultural systems.
  2. Quinoa can be a recognized leader in the sustainable food movement: Jacha Inti, as a Bolivian quinoa processor and exporter, serves as a trailblazer in regenerative agriculture. Their unwavering commitment to regenerative practices has not only improved soil health but also uplifted smallholder farmers in the competitive global quinoa market.
  3. Broader Impact on Agriculture and the Planet: Beyond Jacha Inti’s success, the adoption of regenerative agriculture has far-reaching implications. As more companies and farmers embrace these practices, we can envision the healing of damaged soils, the restoration of ecosystems, and a more sustainable future for agriculture and the planet. Regenerative agriculture presents a powerful and hopeful path forward amidst environmental challenges.

Jacha Inti’s story illuminates the possibilities of harmonious coexistence with nature, illustrating how regenerative agriculture can revolutionize our approach to food production and environmental stewardship.

As more stakeholders join this movement, we are poised to witness a future where soil is renewed, ecosystems flourish, and communities thrive, fostering a more nourishing and sustainable world for generations to come.

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