Ancient grain key crop for climate emergency

Food scientist Fan Zhu's exhaustive study of quinoa indicates the crop will be important as humanity faces the climate emergency.

Quinoa bowl
Quinoa is an ancient crop from the Andes.

Quinoa is an ancient seed, originally grown only in the high altitudes of South America’s Andes, where it has been cultivated for thousands of years.

Its popularity and price have surged over the past three decades because of health-conscious consumers attracted by its reputation as a “super food”.

After 10 years of research into quinoa, including now recently publishing the book, Quinoa, Chemistry and Technology, I believe quinoa is likely to play a significant role in providing food security for a large proportion of the global population. Its tolerance for extreme conditions could make it a key crop for helping humans to survive climate change.

Climate change has already contributed to crop failures around the world, especially in parts of Africa, such as Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan, as well as in parts of Asia, including India and Pakistan. Warmer temperatures, changes in precipitation patterns, droughts, extreme weather events, and pests are issues all around the world that will threaten food production. .

Risks of hunger and malnutrition will increase as a result, most severely affecting people in the poorest regions of the world and disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable populations, including women and children, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

What’s so great about quinoa? To give one example of the seed’s hardiness, quinoa has survived and germinated in experiments simulating the harsh conditions of outer space. These experiments suggested potential for quinoa to be grown in space to feed astronauts on long trips.

It can be cultivated in conditions from the very dry to humid, from sea level to an elevation of 4,000m, and on acidic, nutrient-poor soils with different levels of acidity and alkalinity. The genetic makeup of some quinoa varieties means that they can even be grown in seawater.

Quinoa is a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids. In comparison, most of the staples such as rice and wheat have either lower protein content and/or are incomplete in the make-up of essential amino acids.

Fan Zhu University of Auckland

Sometimes called a ‘pseudo cereal’ – a seed eaten in a way similar to cereal grains such as rice – quinoa is, indeed, highly nutritious, as its “super food” publicity would suggest. It is a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids. In comparison, most of the staples such as rice and wheat have either lower protein content and/or are incomplete in the make-up of essential amino acids.

Quinoa is also gluten-free, which is particularly useful as the number of people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity is ever increasing. The lack of gluten means its bread/pasta-making quality is not as good as wheat, though many technological solutions have already been made and quinoa based food/beverage products are readily available from the marketplace.

For example, xanthan and tara gums have been formulated with quinoa for bread-making and pasta-making. Quinoa based biscuits have been made using fresh eggs and sugars. Lactic acid based fermentation could improve the quality of quinoa based vegan cheese and cream analogs. It is expected that many more quinoa based gluten free products will be developed.

Quinoa is high in fibre, magnesium, B vitamins, iron, potassium, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin E and various beneficial antioxidants. (Some claimed health benefits such as its anti-diabetic and anti-cancer capacities are yet to be proved because the scientific studies that do demonstrate this have been only on animals or in laboratory experiments.)

Like major crops such as wheat, rice and potato, quinoa is a great source of glycemic carbohydrate in the form of starch. The glycemic load of quinoa tends to be lower than that of major staples including rice, maize and wheat, because quinoa tends to contain more non-starch nutrients such as unsaturated lipids which are mostly bioactive and health-promoting.

This nutritional aspect of quinoa has already made it appealing to the health market – but it also has implications for society to combat the ever increasing occurrence of chronic diseases such as potential to reduce risk of diabetes and some cancers.

The sensory acceptance of quinoa may not yet have the sensory appeal of rice or wheat, and cooked quinoa may taste bitter as a result of the saponins in its seed coat, although saponins could be good for us, exhibit a wide range of biological and pharmacological properties and serve as major active principles in folk medicines, especially in traditional Chinese medicines. The bitterness of quinoa could be easily removed by washing before cooking and consumption. Sweet quinoa varieties with fewer saponins have already been created. A sweet quinoa is the sole type cultivated in New Zealand.

In the past three decades, production of quinoa has surged. Bolivia and Peru still dominate the market, but it’s now grown in more than 70 countries. World production is something over 200,000 tonnes per year, which is modest compared to rice and wheat (about 760 million tonnes each), but set to grow dramatically, with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations promoting its development as a sustainable food crop.

Climate Change

But its potential to stand up to climate change is increasingly important. As sea levels rise and salt intrudes inland, the extra salinity in the soil will reduce agriculture land.

In Asia’s large river deltas, such as Ganges–Brahmaputra in Bangladesh, increased salinity is expected to lead to a decrease of up to 30 per cent of land suitable for growing rice within three decades.

In semi-arid Burkina Faso, one of the West African nations with regular food crises, quinoa is being successfully cultivated, and people are accepting its taste. Production is growing in the high plateau of Qinghai–Tibet, an area warming quickly. Quinoa from these high regions is being shipped all over China.

Water scarcity is becoming more severe as our climate changes. To produce 1kg of quinoa requires about 500 litres of water. In comparison, 1kg a kilogram of rice, wheat or maize, requires about 2,500, 1,500 or 1,200 litres of water.

As temperatures rise and extreme climate patterns occur more frequently across Pakistan, the west of China, and northern parts of both India and Africa, rice crops are likely to fail across vast swathes of land, but these are places where it will be possible to grow quinoa. We need to invest in and harness the potential of quinoa. Faced with the dramatic consequences of climate change, quinoa can help us out.

Dr Fan Zhu is a senior lecturer in chemical sciences, Faculty of Science, Waipapa Taumata Rau,  University of Auckland. Quinoa:Chemistry and Technology is published by Elsevier’s Academic Press

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland.

This article was first published by Newsroom.

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