Scientists have recently uncovered the sequence of the quinoa genome that would enable the crop to be bred sweeter and with higher yields. The scientific study, published in Nature in early January 2017, has enabled scientists to better understand how quinoa grows and produces seeds. By identifying the genes that produce seedlings, scientists believe that they will be able to enhance the grain’s commercial viability.
Quinoa is the ancient grain that is believed to have been first domesticated around 5,000BC. The crop is thought to have fed the ancient Andean civilisation in South America, but lost prominence as a staple after the Spanish arrived. Quinoa is highly nutritious, and is often marketed as a “superfood”. The grain is gluten-free and contains essential carbohydrates, fibre, vitamins and minerals essential for human nutrition. Quinoa is also beneficial for people with diabetes, scoring a lower glycaemic index than other crops. The crop can tolerate a wide variety of environments that are not suitable for other crops, including salty soils, high altitudes (up to 4,000 metres above sea level), and temperatures between -8 and 38 degrees Celsius.
Despite the grain’s multiple benefits and agronomic potential, however, global consumption of quinoa is relatively low compared to other grains such as wheat, rice, barley or corn. One of the problems with current quinoa production is that the plant has long stalks and small seed heads that make it vulnerable to destruction from inclement weather. Scientists believe that they will be able to manipulate the uncovered genome to produce greater quantities of the grain. By enabling growers to produce shorter and stockier plants that would be able to support larger seed heads, production of the crop is likely to be much greater. The plant also produces bitter-tasting seeds that come from chemical compounds called saponins. The process of removing saponins currently requires large amounts of water and is very labour-intensive and costly. By altering the production of saponins via the recently identified genomes, both the taste and quantity of quinoa yields could be greatly improved.
Currently, quinoa is mostly produced in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. Due to increased global demand, the price of quinoa has nearly tripled in recent years. The demand driven by the West for the “superfood” was previously thought to be contributing to poverty in the quinoa-growing regions of South America by inflating prices so that locals could no longer afford the grain. A study published by the International Trade Centre, however, identified that global demand for quinoa actually improved the standard of living for poorer rural communities in Peru. In particular, the quinoa trade improved the well-being of Peruvian women who are the main farmers of the grain in Peru. While it was once argued that demand worsened living conditions for rural farmers by inflating prices, it is, in fact, the increased competition from large farms in the coastal regions of Peru that now produce quinoa at a competitive rate that is more threatening. If quinoa production is to be enhanced through scientific development, then better storage solutions for the grain must simultaneously develop to avoid pricing small, rural South American farmers out of the market.
The world’s population is predicted to increase from 7.3 billion people in 2015, to 9.7 billion people by 2050. Without improvements in the world’s current food supply and distribution, millions of people are expected to experience greater food insecurity. Quinoa, being a highly nutritious food source that is particularly durable, may be a key crop for enhancing future global food security both from a supply perspective as well as a nutritional one.