It’s a highly nutritious grain and a cool-climate crop that could have played a more important role feeding a hungry world, had rice, wheat and corn not predominated.
But in 2013 quinoa, (pronounced KEEN-wah), dubbed one of the “lost crops of the Incas,” or “poor man’s crop” could begin a comeback after centuries of relative obscurity.
The United Nations has declared 2013 International Year of the Quinoa, eyeing it as a highly adaptable food crop with an as yet unrealized potential role to play in world food security.
Quinoa (scientific name is Chenopodium Quinoa Willd.), has been dubbed a “super-food” and considered to be among the most nutritious grains in the world due to its protein content.
Farmers will recognize another plant that looks just like it — amaranth — which they call pigweed. Like amaranth, quinoa is actually a “pseudo-cereal” and member of the grass family with many small seeds collected as grain. As a chenopod, quinoa is closely related to species such as beets, spinach and tumbleweeds.
Also like its weedy relative, it produces huge volumes of viable seed. A single quinoa plant produces so many seeds that just 10 plants can seed a hectare, according to Top 100 Food Plants, a culinary crop guide by agriculture Canada research scientist Ernest Small.
Quinoa’s significant nutritional quality and drought tolerance made it the successful contender for the UN declaration.
“As we face the challenge of feeding the world population in a context of climate change, quinoa offers an alternative for those countries suffering from food insecurity,” said FAO director general José Graziano da Silva in a UN news release. The UN’s aim, in focusing world attention on the old-world crop, is towards achieving internationally agreed development goals, including the Millennium Development Goals, the UN release also said.
Cultivated continuously since 3000 BC in the Andean Highlands, it is grown across South America from Columbia to Chile and Argentina, with major production areas including Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. More recently, it has been grown in the cool, dry climates of Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Sweden, Great Britain and Western Canada.
One of the main food crops of South America, interest in consuming quinoa in North America, Europe and Asia picked up in the mid-1970s among those adopting vegetarian or near-vegetarian diets. More recently, as a gluten-free food, quinoa has gained popularity among those who do not eat wheat. Quinoa has a variety of uses in the food, feed, food-processing and other non-food/industrial uses.
Quinoa’s nutritional value lies with it being one of very few plant sources that is a complete protein, similar to animal sources, with all the essential amino acids required by the body. Quinoa is also a good source of magnesium and phosphorus and contains folate and iron.
Its agronomic value is that it is fairly drought tolerant as well as suited to cooler climates.
A major study on quinoa was done by staff with Alberta Agriculture, Food and Rural Development (AAFRD) in 2005 to investigate the market, technical, agronomic and economic feasibilities of producing quinoa in that province.
At the time Bolivia and Ecuador were increasing production and developing both domestic and export markets for quinoa.
The study concluded that traditional quinoa markets, while small, would be viable with agronomic support provided to growers in Western Canada.