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Photo: Pedro Reyna / Flickr

Quinoa is the world’s fastest-growing super-food. While some of us still have trouble pronouncing its name (keen-wa), many have turned to quinoa as their prime source of protein and life-giving sustenance.

The grain earned massive bursts in popularity a few years ago, when an indigenous man in Bolivia said to be 123-years-old attributed his long life to a heavy, quinoa-based diet. National identity documents listed his name as Carmelo Flores, and showed a birthdate of July 16, 1890. Sadly, Flores passed away in 2014, but his story, life and love of quinoa serve as inspirations to millions of people residing in the Western Hemisphere.

As the native food of both Bolivians and Peruvians, quinoa is predominantly a South American commodity and considered a “luxury item” in the United States. Scientists are now seeking ways to deliver quinoa to the rest of the world thanks to one very special characteristic – it can survive in very harsh environments.

As the threat of climate change wages on, lagging water supplies and tattered soil is putting global agriculture at risk. Lands in Africa and the southern U.S. regularly experience drought and related phenomena. Many plants simply cannot thrive in a world of rising temperatures and little water, but while quinoa isn’t exactly invincible, its ability to survive extreme weather is a positive sign for both farmers and the people they serve.

For this reason, quinoa has caught the attention of researchers in Australia. Boasting minimal land suited for crops, Australia depends heavily on imports, and the desire for independence is growing stronger every day. The team has ultimately succeeded in mapping the plant’s entire genome sequence, and is looking to breed new varieties to feed a growing population.

Professor Ute Roessner of the University of Melbourne says, “Quinoa is a highly nutritious grain, full of essential amino acids [and is] a nice balance of lipids and proteins, low GI and gluten-free. It is highly salt-tolerant, and it grows in very low-quality soils, which makes it interesting from an Australian perspective.”

Quinoa fields in Bolivia. (Photo: Mickael T. / Flickr)

Quinoa fields in Bolivia. (Photo: Mickael T. / Flickr)

Plant scientist Mark Tester also had high praise for quinoa’s resilience. “Quinoa is an amazing plant,” he states. “It could grow beautifully in very difficult environments, like the Middle East [or] Norther Sahara where you have salty soil and salty irrigation water. [The goal is to] move this crop from its current status as a crop of importance in South America and a crop of novelty in the West to become a true commodity in the world… I want it out of the health food section.”

Strangely, quinoa didn’t always enjoy its high status. Once a staple crop in Latin America, it lost popularity upon the arrival of Spanish colonists in the 15th century. Now that a “breeding blueprint” has been developed, scientists are looking to do with quinoa what was done with rice nearly 12 years ago.

“The assembly is very good,” says plant scientist Joshua Udall of quinoa’s genetic makeup. “It’s right up there with the standards of other major commodity genomes that have been published before in Nature and other journals. It will be a good resource for quinoa workers and the scientific community in general.”

The length of quinoa’s genome consists of over 1.3 billion blocks of DNA, which are divided among 18 separate chromosomes. Researchers determine that printing the genome out on paper would produce over 500,000 sheets of text. That’s a lot of DNA.

“We were able to determine the location on the chromosome of no less than 85 percent of the DNA sequence,” says breeding expert Robert van Loo. “This is a major benefit for plant breeders.”

Red quinoa. (Photo: Stacy Spensley / Flickr)

Red quinoa. (Photo: Stacy Spensley / Flickr)

As an added bonus, scientists were also able to decipher the evolutionary history of quinoa. This includes discovering its parent plants and when hybridization began. Until this point, many federal organizations have refused to fund quinoa research given the plant’s lack of status as a commodity or orphan crop in developed nations. Tester believes this is about to change.

“I’d like to see quinoa changed into a crop that can be grown much more widely and become much cheaper,” he says. “I want the price to come down by a factor of five.”

Solutions Beyond Quinoa

According to the documentary Unbroken Ground, grains account for nearly 70 percent of our caloric intake, and quinoa has often been called the “king of grains.” Perhaps the best news is that quinoa is not alone in the fight against traditional food production and agriculture. A revolution in the industry has been occurring for quite some time, and with our population heading towards the ten billion mark in 2050, many feel it’s arrival couldn’t be more appropriate.

Regenerative agriculture is a potential solution presented in the documentary. Every time farmers harvest crops, they lose top soil. Over time, lands can become barren, rendering the remaining dirt useless for future plant life. Some go so far as to classify dirt as more necessary or important than gasoline and oil reserves. Regenerative agriculture works to “re-carbonize soil” by trapping emissions below the surface through photosynthesis, keeping dirt fresh for later seedlings.

Another popular method for revitalizing food sources is doing away with beef cattle and replacing them with animals indigenous to America’s plains — bison. Cows require an excessive amount of care; the waste produced from feedlots and cattle farming account for one of the highest percentages of greenhouse gases in the United States. Current practices also tend to be very costly.

Bison don’t require specific forms of shelter or feed. They can survive without artificial protection, and feed on natural grass. Farmers save money while cutting emissions and contributing less to environmental hazards. Bison are particularly special in that they do not consume grass down to the roots like cattle, ensuring supplies will usually grow back.

Recently, Planet Experts reported on GMO production. For the most part, GMOs can work to reduce world hunger, though the topic continues to stir controversy. Scientists experimenting with tobacco plants recently discovered that spiking photosynthesis could ultimately boost crop yield, which may serve as a means to reducing global food shortages. Study leader Stephen Long is confident the results witnessed in tobacco can occur in virtually any plant.

“We’re targeting a universal process that’s the same in all crops,” he explains.

Though numbers vary, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that nearly 800 million people around the world suffer from malnourishment and lack reasonable access to food and water sources.

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