In Search of the Next Quinoa

by Heleene Tambet

Quinoa has not always basked in the gourmand spotlight, nor enjoyed the endless adulation of health enthusiasts. Before quinoa was on the front cover of every food magazine, before it took over cookbooks and Whole Foods shelves, it was a lonely crop.

Today we hear how rural farmers in Bolivia - the original consumer of the beloved superfood - can no longer afford it. Western consumption has resulted in such a price hike. A few decades ago, prior to various formal efforts to promote quinoa, those same farmers were the only ones aware of the crop. The pseudo-grain was not available in supermarkets, nor was it possible to find a packing facility, or a commercial mill that would actually process its coarse seeds. The National Research Council had listed quinoa as one of the ‘lost crops of Incas’.

Such lost crops, (also known as neglected crops, minor crops, or poor man’s crops), have a common term coined for them - orphan crops. These are plants that humans have used for subsistence for hundreds, often for thousands of years, but have fallen into oblivion in an era higher yields and bigger returns. Lost crops often do not make it to store shelves, are not deemed attractive enough for commercial mills to grind and big producers to trade. Despite of being crucial for livelihood and nutrition for millions, orphan crops are not traded internationally like commodities such as rice, corn and wheat, and therefore mostly ignored by science and seed companies.

In China, fields of foxtail millet have covered the foothills of Taihang Mountains for almost ten thousand years. It was the Cishan culture that 6,500 years BC domesticated this nutritious grain. For the past century, foxtail millet, notably also known as German millet, Hungarian millet, Italian millet, and Siberian millet, has been an irreplaceable staple for many communities in South India. Foxtail’s bigger brother, pearl millet was domesticated from a wild grass of the southern Sahara about 4,000 years ago. Its wide consumption in dry areas of Sub-Saharan Africa makes it a sixth most cultivated cereal in the world. And yet - who would have known?

In Nunn, Colorado, first attempts to grow millet on American soil are taking place. Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media

In Nunn, Colorado, first attempts to grow millet on American soil are taking place.
Luke Runyon/Harvest Public Media

There are approximately 300,000 plant species around the world that are known to be edible. At its current state, we use a mere 200 of them for food, at best, and a large majority of us get most of our calories from solely three sources: wheat, rice, and corn.

How should we feel when the “food industry” limits our choices on such a narrow crop basis? There hasn’t been too much incentive for the research and development community to look into further opportunities for foxtail or pearl millet. Or fonio, teff, sorghum, kodo millet, African rice, emmer, and Ethiopian oats. Or any of the rest of the 300,000 species we miss out that may otherwise fulfill our nutritional needs and delight our palates.

Far from the white, soft, uniform wheat that pairs with Western agriculture just as corn syrup pairs with American food industry, is emmet, ancient wheat variety from Western Asia. Largely unknown by the public, it has been said that it is one the sweetest, best-tasting cereals. Emmet reached Ethiopia 5,000 years, and despite what was essentially a disappearance from the rest of the world since then, its importance cannot be understated in Ethiopian highlands where a great number of families rely on emmet to get through their day.

Sorghum, the dietary staple of more than 500 million people has a considerably wider global spread. In terms of quantity eaten, it is surpassed only by rice, wheat, maize, and potatoes. The versatility of sorghum is somewhat unforeseen. It can grow in both temperate and tropical zones, endure hot and dry conditions and withstand high rainfall. Its grain can be used for a full range of dishes from popped sorghum as a snack to malted sorghum in beer. The plant can be utilized in any phase of house building, in form of fuel, vegetable oil, wax, dye - you name it.

Freshly harvested sorghum in the hands of Abang, a Sudanese farmer who is part of OXFAM project that aims to introduce more weather tolerant crops to areas suffering from drought. Abdullah Ampilan

Freshly harvested sorghum in the hands of Abang, a Sudanese farmer who is part of OXFAM project that aims to introduce more weather tolerant crops to areas suffering from drought.
Abdullah Ampilan

Despite the characteristics of something that could be the world's most versatile domesticated plant, sorghum has not seen many formal efforts to facilitate its growth in comparison with its equivalent crops embedded in Western culture. The same is true for a range of crops from Africa, a continent with more native grains than any other. The heritage of a wide variety of minor crops, all eaten from time to time once the conditions - and not the humans - asked for it, stretches back to the origins of humankind. As recent decades has brought on an  embrace of new seeds from across the seas, Africa has slowly tilted away from its own ancient cereal wealth.

The global community is not doing much to reverse those trends. While in search for information, what we mostly find in regard to the characteristics of orphan crops is something in line of ‘appears to have useful characteristics’. Wikipedia articles on those plants are a quick read, standing as a symbol for minimal resources globally directed into promoting the crops and their potential.

And yet, these ‘lost’ plants have much to offer, and not just to Africa. They carry a promise for solving some of the greatest food-production problems of the twenty-first century. Africa's native grains tend to tolerate extremes. They can thrive where introduced grains produce inconsistently, and most can grow better than other cereals on relatively infertile soils. For thousands of years, they have yielded grain where land preparation was minimal, and management poor. They combine well with other crops in mixed stands. They tend to be nutritious, and as the quinoa boom has shown, they have a lot of undiscovered potential to offer for the palate that seeks for further diversity than mere further processing of the sources we already have taken the maximum out of.

Unfortunately, the neglect is also obvious where orphan crops could help the most: the path towards ending poverty. Today’s world has an array of programs focused on feeding the world, lifting people out of hunger, contributing to subsistence of small-scale farming. The underlying model for the projects is often rather simple: give farmers seeds of a variety wide-known for Westerners, give them some technology to sow the seeds, or, in worse case, ship them some form of wheat flour, produced in high quantities by subsidized Western farmers.

In Afghanistan, large quantities of US wheat, flown in by USAID after the fall of Taliban, drove down the price of local wheat and income of many farmers. Nitin Madhav

In Afghanistan, large quantities of US wheat, flown in by USAID after the fall of Taliban, drove down the price of local wheat and income of many farmers.
Nitin Madhav

Such model attack local crop diversity from two sides. It shifts agriculture towards grains that have proved to yield the highest in North America, Europe or (more recently-mechanized) Asia, using seeds that are already developed by big Western corporations and easy to cheaply distribute. It also creates new tastes. Teff might be nutritious and pearl millet great for the soil, but this sole notion will not make communities to continue reliance on their historical staple. Some Western consumers regard quinoa as something new and novel. Perhaps the same can be said indigenous communities who see the cereals that come in colorful boxes or ready-made wheat bread that does not call for hours of soaking or other tedious methods of manual preparation.

Whether it is neglect of cultural heritage, or the way the world dismisses its biodiversity that we are worried about, a lot comes down to mere commercial interest. There might not be much incentive embedded in the knowledge that we have thousands of underutilized food crops. Similarly, the notion of depleted soils in tropics might not take us very far on the constructive path towards solutions.

What does, is money, as proven by the story of quinoa: how the crop was found, promoted, and spread. Despite the stories of environmental destruction caused by the rapid growth of the quinoa production, and struggles of locals in Andean highlands who, due to global demand, cannot afford their historical source of subsistence, it is clear that new interest on the world market have created new opportunities for the crop and its growers.

The selection of quinoa in grocery stores only gets wider. Keenwah, Co.

The selection of quinoa in grocery stores only gets wider.
Keenwah, Co.

Instead of dumping the crops of their choice to poorer markets, wider opportunities may be created with a wider spectrum of crops. A mill that processes local finger millet might take a community and its ecosystem further than a truckload of wheat bread. If the ones who want to promote agricultural yields, instead of delivering seeds of Western farming, directed their efforts into enhancing practices that boost harvests of indigenous grains, we’d have hope.  

The world where vast majority of us rely on three crops will not prosper forever. The world of abundant resources and endless territories, both calling for more mechanical extraction, has already seen its peak, and if we want to continue the story of humans and their agriculture, we must be smarter. Diversity is our friend. Instead of undermining it, we must begin building a future that embraces it.