As global population continues its steady rise, society has begun to question whether it can fulfill future food demands in ways that are sustainable and socially just. Clearly, this is a daunting challenge. Growing competition for land, water and energy will affect our ability to produce sufficient food, as will the urgency to reduce the negative impacts of our food system on the environment.
In the search for solutions that guarantee equitable food security, adding diversity to our agricultural system and (ultimately) our diets ranks high on the list. Nature harbors a plethora of underutilized plant species which could help humanity sustain and expand the production of nutritious food in more efficient and sustainable ways. One such species is quinoa, a South American wonder crop that has gained international recognition for the outstanding quality of its seeds (these are protein rich, have a perfect balance of essential amino acids and are high in beneficial fibers). Quinoa is undemanding and extremely resilient; it has evolved to thrive in a wide range of agroecosystems, including nutrient-deficient, arid and saline environments. Indeed, very few crops (certainly not your conventional staples) can compete with quinoa on maximizing nutritional value under low-input farming schemes or marginal conditions.
And yes, the world is taking notice.
Until recently, quinoa was a niche product for the health-conscious consumer of the industrialized world. But today, the crop is poised to become a global staple (nota bene: let’s not forget that quinoa is a staple in its region of origin, the South American Andes). The adoption of quinoa in daily diets worldwide is surging, and global food makers are assertively incorporating it in consumer products with mass appeal (think cereals, energy bars, non-dairy drinks, etc.). The growing need for sustainable protein alternatives (to supplant animal ones) has also lured in Big Agribusiness. All of a sudden, everyone wants to grow quinoa in their backyard! The question is: are we ready?
The prospects for converting quinoa into a global staple are promising, but great challenges lie ahead. To begin with, yield performance needs to improve significantly to make a competitive case for quinoa in commodity markets. Yield stability is just as relevant! Quinoa is highly sensitive to specific environmental cues, especially during early development (crop failure at establishment can be quite common for inexperienced farmers). Quinoa’s innate reactive nature (the same nature that enables it to respond so well to drought or salinity stress) often and inexplicably affects the crop’s ability to fulfill its yield potential. In a similar manner, grain quality, composition and consistency are largely influenced by unpredictable environmental events and management practices. Collectively, these issues are antagonistic with the ambitions of global food makers. These companies want to treat quinoa like a commodity and demand stable pricing, reliable supplies and consistent quality…something producers cannot fully guarantee today. To a great extent, the domestication of quinoa is not yet complete.
For those of us at the technology front, the end-goal clear. At The Quinoa Company we are focused on developing superior quinoa varieties which can help expand the production of quinoa to every corner of the world, and which can simultaneously meet the processing needs and quality demands of global food makers (think for instance, improved protein content and quality). Alongside Wageningen University and Research (the world’s top agricultural university), we are using cutting-edge genomic and phenotyping tools to explore and exploit the natural genetic diversity of this wonderful species. Our aim will be to deliver a new generation of high-yielding and stable varieties without compromising the crop’s natural resilience and hardiness (in fact, want to exploit quinoa’s ability to thrive where conventional crops will not). With a proven track-record in the development and commercialization of outstanding varieties, The Quinoa Company and Wageningen University and Research will surely deliver on this promise! All we ask from those on the market side (food makers and retailers) is patience and a constructive attitude. Slowly but surely, quinoa is here to stay.
Andres Torres Salvador