Can quinoa help feed the world?

February 15, 2017 12:00 am | Updated 03:32 am IST - Paris:

The ‘miracle crop’ could provide a healthy, nutritious food source for the world using land and water that currently cannot be used

A quinoa plantPhoto: ReutersDAVID MERCADO

A quinoa plantPhoto: ReutersDAVID MERCADO

Scientists unveiled the near-complete genome of quinoa, a grain cultivated centuries ago by Incas in the Andes that scientists say could help feed a hungry world.

Best known outside its native region to health food fans in North America and Europe, quinoa is highly nutritious, gluten-free, and packed with essential amino acids, fibre, vitamins and minerals, experts say.

It also scores lower than other crops on the glycaemic index, a measure of how quickly foods raise blood sugar levels -- a major concern for diabetics.

The grain thrives at any altitude up to 13,000 feet above sea level, in conditions that would leave most food plants struggling.

"Quinoa is incredibly resilient, and can grow in poor or salty soils," said Mark Tester, a professor at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia and leader of the consortium of scholars that decoded the plant's genome.

And yet, global consumption remains incidental compared to wheat, rice, barley or corn -- less than 100,000 tonnes per year compared to hundreds of millions of tonnes for each of the other major grains and cereals.


"One problem with quinoa is that the plant naturally produces bitter-tasting seeds," Tester explained.

The bitterness -- a natural defence against birds and other pests -- comes from chemical compounds called saponins.

The process for removing these chemicals is labour-intensive and costly, and requires ample use of water.

Another constraint is that quinoa plants tends to have small seed heads and long stalks that can collapse in strong wind or heavy rain.

"Despite its agronomic potential, quinoa is still an underutilised crop, with relatively few active breeding programmes," Tester and three dozen colleagues wrote in the journal Nature.AFP

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