Innovations to restore water ecosystems link small farmers to the market
Páramo Farms and Páramo Snacks have joined forces to add value to the vegetables and native potato species grown by ASOARCE (Asociación de Productores Agroecológicos del Pantano de Arce). This partnership is testing oil-free baked potato chips and vacuum-packed potatoes and vegetables in a controlled atmosphere. This article describes the processes, highlights the challenges, and explains why these are replicable efforts that could be used to restore degraded lands in water ecosystems. The Páramo de Guerrero is in the north region of the Colombian department of Cundinamarca and includes the highlands of the municipalities of Carmen de Carupa, Tausa, Zipaquirá, Subachoque, Cogua, Pacho, San Cayetano, and Susa. This páramo has a direct relationship with Bogotá because the Frío River, which originates there, supplies water to the capital and nearby cities. However, Páramo de Guerrero is one of the most degraded páramos in the country. Seventy percent of its land has deteriorated due to bad agricultural practices, intensive grazing, and indiscriminate mining. As a result, protecting this páramo (and the country’s other 35 páramos) is a priority for its residents and the Colombian government. For the last four years, ASOARCE’s growers have been planting organic crops of native Andean potatoes and vegetables to restore the degraded soil. The crops have been of excellent quality, flavor, and texture, in spite of the zone’s adverse climate and altitude. To link ASOARCE to regional markets, Páramo Farms, a private company, is developing new ways to transform and market ASOARCE’s products. The initiative will also contribute to the area's reconversion programs. Páramo Snacks, a partner company of Páramo Farms, uses the crops to make oil-free baked chips and ready-to-eat vacuum-packed potatoes and vegetables in a controlled atmosphere. Baked and oil-free Chemical engineer and Páramo Snacks partner Juan Carlos Flórez is leading the development of oil-free baked chips. Juan Carlos has been testing with different Andean roots and tubers produced by ASOARCE farmers. He has found the best results for flavor, texture, odor, and color in the native potatoes, yacon, and beets. French intern Johanna Malard'hie brought her knowledge to the process. Learn about the history . The trials also tested products beyond the páramo. Juan Carlos experimented with baked sweet plantain, pineapple, and coconut chips. After 18 months of testing, Páramo Snacks perfected the technique that makes its chips unique: They are tasty, crunchy, and oil-free—an exceptional fact, considering that a typical fried potato chip has a fat content of 35% to 40%. The chips’ final quality depends on baking; this a delicate and demanding activity in labor and raw material. For example, to get 10 to 15 kilos of chips, it is necessary to process 100 kilos of yacon. The carbohydrates of yacon are not stored as starch?? but as fructooligosaccharides, a type of sugar that the digestive tract does not digest. For that reason, people with diabetes can eat yacon chips. To produce the best chips, the Páramo Snacks team identifies the best varieties and recognizes the best state of ripeness of each crop. Those skills have been key to the success of the product quality. Vacuum and controlled-atmosphere packaging Vacuum and controlled-atmosphere packaging are packaging methods that seek to extend the shelf life of a fresh product. In food processing, foods preserved by these methods are known as fresh-cut (or minimally processed) foods. Fresh-cut vegetables are selected, washed, peeled, cut, dried, and packaged for the consumer. The cold chain is vital during the conservation, distribution, and marketing of fresh-cut foods because they have no preservatives or additives. Their shelf life is usually no longer than 10 days. Páramo Farms has been experimenting with ready-to-eat or ready-to-prepare convenience food under the direction of food engineer Viviana Carolina Rey. Her goal is to vacuum pack potatoes and vegetables in a controlled atmosphere for maximum shelf life. When a product is packaged under vacuum, the air is removed from inside the package to slow the product’s decomposition. And when a product is packaged in a controlled atmosphere, the air in the package is replaced with a mixture of gases (oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitrogen). As with oil-free baked chips, this process also presents challenges and addressing those extends beyond processors. For example, people must understand the benefits of consuming organic products. Marketers must convince consumers that by buying these convenience foods, they are extending their shelf life and helping to reduce food waste. Are these efforts replicable in other páramos? Of course they are! Over 500,000 people live in the Colombian páramos. On June 28, 2018, the Senate approved Bill 233 that protects the country's páramos and their resources, but we need more than laws to protect them! The integrated effort between private companies and farming communities, and innovations like Good Chips, offer alternatives that can motivate small-scale farmers to replace high-impact agriculture and extensive cattle herds with sustainable agroecological production. The participation of private companies, like Páramo Farms and Páramo Snacks and other key players in the supply chain, is necessary to create new farmers associations and transform existing ones. For more information, you can contact Margarita Cabal at email@example.com.