Soy and maize are two major crops produced in Ecuador, especially in the highland regions. The government has provided subsidies and incentives for farmers to produce these crops to meet national needs and to increase revenue from export. However, Ecuador's smaller land mass and small amount of arable land means that the country has never been a major producer of either crop. However, there is a crop that Ecuador could expand cultivation of, a crop that Ecuador could be one of the main producers of, and a crop that could provide an alternative protein source to soy and animal protein: Chocho.
Currently, chocho is not eaten much outside of Ecuador. Infact, in Ecuador it has a reputation as a ‘poor people's food’ because it is often eaten by farmers and their families. This is in part due to the fact that there is not a profitable market for chocho outside of Ecuador, meaning that growing chocho for any reason other than personal consumption does not yield much income as compared to other crops (like soy or maize) that are sold on a global scale. BUT, we are trying to change that. Research shows that if chocho successfully reaches the international market, value for farmers can triple. Additionally, Ecuador could be one of the main exporters of chocho, meaning it would become even more profitable for farmers to grow it.
With its high nutritional value, high protein content, and odds of becoming big in the vegan, vegetarian, and gluten free markets, research predicts chocho could easily multiply in production value in Ecuador. If chocho becomes as popular as quinoa, profits could significantly increase. Uses are many and innovation is key. The variety of uses and market appeal could have huge implications: Ecuador could stop competing with other countries who lead in terms of maize and soy, and approach the international market with a series of innovative products (like our protein powders) made of chocho, creating a niche for themselves in the world marketplace. Research suggests that this new niche would provide new sources of income for many Ecuadorians and might provide a way for many impoverished farmers to increase their food security and break out of poverty.
Were production to increase in Ecuador, in addition to increased revenue, the population of Ecuador and the world could benefit health wise. Research shows that consuming more chocho could help reduce the prevalence of obesity in Latin America, since it may help lower triglycerides, cholesterol, and balance insulin. Additionally, as farmers would make more profit from increasing demand for chocho, food security would increase within the country. This is especially true as meat prices will continue to rise in the future. One hectare of chocho can provide enough protein to satisfy the daily protein needs of over 2500 males or 3500 females. So, as the meat market becomes increasingly inaccessible, increasing chocho production provides an alternative source of protein. Research also suggests that through generating profit through chocho, Ecuador could increase social equity, environmental sustainability and cultural identity.
In addition to the monetary and human benefits of increasing chocho production, chochos benefit soil health. Chocho sequesters nitrogen, fixing it in the soil and increasing overall soil fertility. Chocho also produces its own natural pest repellent: alkaloids. Alkaloids protect the seeds against white worms and potato plagues. These alkaloids can also help control intestinal parasites in farming animals. A bonus: the alkaloids help the seeds stay fresh and keep away seed eating months. This helps to preserve the quality of the crop while crops like maize are at risk of being infested or damaged. Because of the alkaloids and its nitrogen fixing properties, research suggests that farmers could start planting chocho as a rotational crop together with maize and soybeans. This would improve the fertility of the other two crops while increasing the production of chocho. This would also help farmers learn how to better grow chocho and find ways to improve yield capacity, find better seed varieties, and discover genetic variability. As the global market grows, farmers could transition to cultivating more chocho.
Let's talk about another very important often overlooked aspect of chocho: the amount of protein produced per acre. This information is especially important when compared to soybeans and animal protein. Soybean production is one of the top drivers of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. The Amazon rainforest is incredibly important, it is a haven for biodiversity, provides countless ecosystem services, and is referred to as the “lungs” of the world. So, it is important to note that growing chocho can produce more protein per acre and more protein per ton than soybeans grown in Ecuador. Chocho can produce on average approximately 459 lbs of protein per acre as compared to the 423 lbs of protein produced by soybeans per acre. Per ton, the numbers provide even more hope: 1 ton of chocho has 1080 pounds of protein as compared to 730 pounds of protein in 1 ton of soybeans. This means that chocho production can provide more protein than soy production can, and can divert soy production from the precious forest regions of Ecuador.
Animal protein production is another major driver of deforestation. Often, ranchers cut down forests and turn the clear cut land into pastures to raise their animals. Not only is this bad for the rainforests, but animal protein production is incredibly resource intensive, requiring lots of water, land, and food. As we face the effects of climate change and try to reduce our carbon footprint, transitioning to lower carbon sources of protein is imperative. Chocho is one such low carbon protein source. Requiring no water besides natural rains and no toxic synthetic pesticides, there are little emissions associated with the production of chocho. Especially because we grow our chocho using regenerative methods, we may even be sequestering carbon.
MIKUNA hopes to help jump start this chocho revolution, introducing chocho to the world market and increasing the production of chocho in Ecuador. We are dedicated to innovating new ways to use chocho, whether its a chocho based meat alternative or an addition to bread to increase nutritional value, and hope this innovation will help the people of Ecuador as the production value of chocho continues to grow. Through eco-friendly, regenerative growing practices we can produce more chocho protein per acre than beef or soy and can begin to divert protein production from ecologically imperiled areas like forests while empowering and growing our Ecuadorian workforce. We are excited to see how chocho can positively impact you, the people who make Mikuna possible, and the planet as we build a better more sustainable future together.