Student quinoa project selected for global summit

Cristina Ocana Gallegos, a master’s student in crop soil sciences in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, showcased her quinoa project at the Youth Ag Summit by Bayer.

Cristina Ocana Gallegos stands in a browning field of quinoa against a blue sky.
Gallegos stands in a field of quinoa in Kunururra, Western Australia.

On November 16 and 17, 100 young leaders were brought together for a virtual summit with the goal of empowering attendees with networking, skills training, and project development for agriculture-focused projects.

Despite getting rejected the first time she applied, Gallegos decided to try again. She reached out to her colleagues in the lab and her advisor for guidance in helping to shape the project proposal the second time around, and said she benefitted from the extra guidance.

Gallegos was one of 100 delegates from 44 countries brought together to share ideas and projects, and work with mentors and small groups during the summit to further ideas that could help feed the world.

“It was very inspiring to see so many people in industry, academia, and government come together to improve our food systems,” she said.

Gallegos’ project focuses on breeding a new varieties of quinoa and how to optimize the growth of quinoa as commercial crop, but also “the social aspect of it, how we can empower our communities to have better nutrition,” she said.

High in protein and full of fiber and essential amino acids, quinoa is a hearty crop able to tolerate salty water, high winds, frosts, and droughts, allowing it to be cultivated in a variety of climates. It is native to the Andes Mountain region, and later spread throughout South America where it was cultivated by the Incas.

Four people stand in a quinoa field beside a forested hill in Ecuador.
Gallegos and Murphy in Cañar, Ecuador with community collaborators.

Today, quinoa production has spread to over 50 countries, and quinoa crop prices tripled between 2006 and 2014.

Kevin Murphy, associate professor in crop and soil sciences, said Gallegos’ research focuses on one of the most critical issues for quinoa farmers worldwide.

“Pre-harvest sprouting due to late season rains causes significant crop losses each year, and Cristina is working to find varieties that possess genetic resistance to this sprouting,” he said.

Gallegos said because she is from Ecuador, she enjoys studying a crop that shares her cultural roots. “I feel a really strong connection with the plant and the crop,” she said.

Gallegos said the summit was a chance to learn about new initiatives in agriculture at the international level. “For me, it’s not so much about profit as it is providing healthy food for everyone.”