A bittersweet crop

Published online 9 February 2017

Quinoa is a promising crop packed in a bitter shell, but can this super food become a staple in this region?

Pakinam Amer

© Frans lemmens / Alamy Stock Photo
More than a hundred plant scientists, geneticists, agriculture experts, policy makers and government representatives recently came together to discuss a global expansion of agriculture beyond major crops with a keen focus on quinoa and its use in marginal environments in North Africa and the Middle East (MENA).

Many have scrutinized quinoa, its biology, genetics and its place in a largely inhospitable region marked by water shortages, poor soils, barren deserts, diminishing rural space, and feeling the impact of climate change. The discussions were geared towards convincing policy-makers that quinoa could be the crop of the future if the region embraces it.

But, can the Middle East, largely dependent on ancestral staple crops like wheat and barley, shift its endeavors to quinoa, considered exotic and foreign by many farmers? 

Quinoa is a highly nutritious seed, rich in nutrients and vitamins, and loaded with amino-acids. In a world struggling to meet food needs and with agriculture faltering in its capacity to meet those needs, scientists are looking for viable alternatives, crops that can go the distance in enduring water scarcity and soil degradation. 

Quinoa was domesticated some 7,000 years ago in the Andes Mountains and is known as “the mother grain” in some Latin American cultures. It can withstand harsh environments, including high salinity, parching temperatures and high aridity. 

“The key issue with quinoa is that you can grow quinoa where you can’t grow other things. You can grow quinoa using water than can’t be used [for other crops],” explains Mark Tester, professor of plant science at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). The crop is also genetically diverse.

“The dream is to be able to develop a new agriculture system to grow salt-tolerant crops using salty water. In Egypt, you’ve got sandy soils and brackish ground water, [in addition to] massive water resources. You have lot of desert in North Africa; Mauritania, Libya, Egypt as well. You have underground water that’s just not usable, [because it’s] too salty to be used, just imagine if we can unlock that,” he says. “This is where quinoa comes in.” 

"The world is highly dependent on four major crops. If there’s a shortage in one, we’re looking at a famine."

But, currently, the crop is very expensive in markets globally; it requires intensive farming techniques and processing, owing to its high protein content, in order to be fit for consumption. It’s suitable for subsistence farmers, scientists say, but if it’s to be used widely, it needs to be scaled up to industrial production. 

“You can’t really take a crop and throw it at the farmers and ask them to produce it. You have to make sure they have the right varieties and the right agriculture and irrigation systems,” says Ismahane Elouafi, geneticist and director general of the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA). This is a non-profit research-for-development organization founded to encourage agricultural productivity in marginal and saline environments. 

Ismahane says that ICBA is looking into starting 'a mega-project on quinoa' that creates harvesting programs per country. Some countries are more promising targets than others, such as Jordan, Morocco, and the UAE. These have experience harvesting quinoa, and are where the ICBA plans to start.

“We’re looking at key donors and making partnerships,” she says. “Marginal environments, where we plan to work, are usually pockets of poverty, so we need to raise funds.” 

Not a luxury

Without the cultural resonance of other crops, can the climate-proof quinoa ever be popular? 

The question of whether or not the region is willing to invest in quinoa as an alternative sustainable crop, represents a profound dimension in context of world food security, according to Mohamed Saleh Ould Ahmed, regional representative for MENA for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). 

“It’s not a luxury … And it’s not about competing with present crops, it’s about survival,” he says. “The world today is highly dependent on four major crops. If there’s a shortage in one of them, we’re looking at a famine.” 

There’s already wheat shortage in Africa, he adds, and other major crops are progressively failing because they can’t withstand the tougher effects of global warming so “we don’t have a choice but to expand our scope of production and our crop yields.” 

Ahmed admits that quinoa still has a long way to go. For instance, it has to be first introduced to the right farmers. “They will talk to each other, and this is how the behavioral consumptions of people change. It is one of the stages that quinoa has to go through to be economically visible in this region and elsewhere.” 

Quinoa in the lab

Quinoa proponents talk about empowering national research systems, partnerships between private and public institutions, knowledge transfer regarding breeding varieties and exchanging quinoa germplasma for analysis. 

The biggest producers of quinoa, a few countries in Latin American countries such as Peru, Bolivia and Chili, are very protective of their crops’ genetic material and breeds. Scientists have so far been working with a limited genetic basis, according to Eloufi, that comprises around 20-30% of the total genetic variety of quinoa. “We need more,” she says.

Tester, however, says that engaging in quinoa research is simple. “All you need is a computer, a brain, and some salty water. You can grow it in sand,” says the scientist who, along with colleagues at KAUST just created the first high-quality reference genome for quinoa, the most comprehensive picture of quinoa’s DNA yet, published this week in Nature.

He adds: “The ICBA is setting a very good example for the region. [Research] need not be resource-intensive. Of course, if you want to turn quinoa into a commodity for everyone not just a few rich hippies in California, you need to put in the resources.”

ICBA has been doing research on quinoa since 2007, partly funded by the Islamic bank, the UAE government, and the Abu Dhabi environment agency. “We were able to do trials and look at quinoa performance in several countries, in Tunisia, Oman, Jordan, Yemen, Palestine, Lebanon,” says Elouafi of ICBA. 

Different environments require mixed genotypes and quinoa varieties, so research has to be customized to improve genetic breeding and enhance productivity and quality of the crops. 

Currently, Tester and Elouafi’s institutions are working hard on a joint study of 1,685 quinoa lines imported from Bolivia and Peru. The scientists are looking at the genetic varieties among these lines; “eventually we could see a line that has zero tolerance to salinity, and another that has tolerance of up to 25,000 ppt [part-per-thousand] and you see what genes have been expressed and what the difference between the two is.” This way, scientists can select for genes during the breeding process. 

“We need to industrialize its growth, and for that you need some major advances in breeding. And for that you need, breeders, you need land and also the genomics,” adds Tester.