The PECOLO project promoted the mobility of doctoral researchers in the context of the use of traditional crops and other functional foods in the Andean region, while also strengthening research and innovation.

In 2019, young Doctor Jeadran Malagón-Rojas was presented with an opportunity that he is still thankful for.

While writing his doctoral thesis, he got to go on a researcher exchange to the University of Turku as part of the PECOLO development cooperation project, the aim of which was to promote the sustainable, healthy and innovative use of traditional foods.

At the University of Turku, Jeadran Malagón-Rojas joined the Functional Foods Forum.

- I got to work with Professor Seppo Salminen and Doctor Hania Szajewska, who was visiting from the University of Warsaw, two world-class authorities in their field. For a doctor like me from a middle income country and a university that probably cannot even break into the top 2,000 in international rankings, it was like a dream come true, Malagón-Rojas says now.

Meta-analyses of probiotics

In Turku, Malagón-Rojas got to work with the Polish Szajewska, which Professor Seppo Salminen calls an incredible stroke of luck.

Szajewska just happened to be visiting Turku at the same time, and ended up teaching Malagón-Rojas about meta-analysis, among other things. Malagón-Rojas explains that meta-analysis involves using computer software to analyse multiple scientific studies to determine things like whether a food has positive impacts on public health.

- Learning about meta-analysis was the most valuable thing that I got out of the exchange.

The analysed studies explored the impacts of various microorganisms on health and childhood diseases.

More specifically, the analysis focused on the various microorganisms, probiotics and postbiotics found in fermented foods.

- Probiotics are useful, living microorganisms, such as bacteria, fungi and mixes thereof. Postbiotics, on the other hand, can include things like non-living bacteria that contain useful proteins and fatty acids, to put it simply, Malagón-Rojas explains.

In practice, these kinds of microorganisms are found in products like acidophilus yoghurts, which provide health benefits.

Based on research started at the University of Turku, Malagón-Rojas, Salminen, Szajewska and Anastasia Mantziari have so far published two scientific articles on children’s diseases and postbiotic microorganisms.

Contributing to the fight against tuberculosis and osteoporosis

Rojas has since continued his research in Colombia, and is currently working on two new projects.

- At present, we are studying the potential of two types of lactic acid bacteria in treating tuberculosis, Malagón-Rojas says.

According to Malagón-Rojas, this is a largely unexplored avenue of research.

Another meta-analysis that Malagón-Rojas is currently working on has to do with the health benefits of yoghurt enriched with vitamin D and whether increased yoghurt consumption could reduce the occurrence of osteoporosis in Colombia.

If the research ends up confirming the health benefits, they could affect the official food guidelines of Colombia and thus have an impact on public health.

Developing research and innovations

Project coordinator Hanna Lakkala is delighted that Malagón-Rojas has continued his research and that the project is still bearing fruit several years after its conclusion.

According to her, the researcher exchange was a small but important and fruitful part of the PECOLO project. The project brought a total of four doctoral researchers to Finland.

In addition to the research exchanges, the project promoted research and innovation at Univercidad Nacional Agraria la Molina in Peru and Universidad El Bosque in Colombia in areas such as functional foods and food biochemistry. These efforts included updating curricula and strengthening innovation operations and research expertise with the help of various short courses. Another important aspect of the project was the development of cooperation and the innovation environment with the public and private sectors of both countries. The idea is to tackle problems in cross-sectoral clusters.

- Cross-sectoral cooperation and joint development represent a new type of operating culture in these countries, Lakkala says.

The project’s Finnish partner institutions consisted of the University of Turku’s Finland Futures Research Centre (Lakkala’s employer), Functional Foods Forum and Department of Biochemistry.

Seeking food security amid climate change

The Andean region is characterised by the extensive cultivation and high consumption of wheat and rice, but growing these crops is becoming increasingly difficult as a result of climate change. However, the region also boasts a number of native pseudocereals, such as quinoa and amaranth, which thrive in a variety of different conditions and can thus contribute to food security.

According to Hanna Lakkala, improving food security was, in fact, the very premise of the PECOLO project.

- It is a question of what we will be able to cultivate in different parts of the world as the climate continues to change.

This is why studying local crop varieties and other functional foods is important, as this type of research helps determine what we can sustainably and self-sufficiently produce.

- This requires research, development and innovation, which universities play an important role in, Lakkala says.

In Colombia, the project was also notable in the context of the 2016 Peace Accord, which had major impacts on agriculture and farmers’ rights.

- We started looking into how the Peace Accord could be strengthened with the help of university cooperation, Lakkala says.

Since the conclusion of the project, communication between the project partners has decreased somewhat due to the pandemic and also because of Finland’s development cooperation funding for Latin America being cut back to the point of making it difficult to launch new projects.

- I would like there to be more incentives for continuing cooperation between universities, Lakkala says. - After all, this kind of cooperation offers a great deal for both us and them, creating bonds and offering new perspectives.

Mobility is critical to science

According to Jeadran Malagón-Rojas, the mobility and internationalisation of researchers should definitely be increased.

- It really opens doors that would otherwise not even exist.

Mobility promotes research and other thinking as well, Malagón-Rojas says. During his exchange, he also got to learn about Finland’s long-term development plans, schools and education system, for example.

- I learned a great deal about things like the importance of schools being located near homes, things that I’ve also been able to utilise in my work with children and young people, he says.

Seppo Salminen from the University of Turku also underlines the importance of researcher exchange.

- It enriches the lives of both domestic and foreign students. It also builds trust and connections, which can eventually lead to new visits and even new research discoveries.


Text: Esa Salminen


Native Crops for Innovative and Sustainable Food Futures in Peru and Colombia (PECOLO)

Project Budget: €643 870 with MFA funding (total budget €804 837)
Project Duration: 1.3.2017-30.3.2020
Coordinating Institution: University of Turku, Finland Futures Research Centre
Partners: University of Turku's Functional Foods Forum and Department of Biochemistry, Finland; Universidad El Bosque, Colombia and Universidad Agraria la Molina, Peru