Over the past ten years, the South American grain quinoa has moved from the shelves of specialty health food stores into the aisles of local supermarkets. Quinoa is gluten free—a big selling point given how gluten sensitive modern consumers have become—and highly nutritious, but it’s also expensive, so while it’s become more widely available, it’s still something of a luxury foodstuff. That may soon be changing because, as the BBC reports, scientists have successfully mapped the grain’s genome and believe this research could help bring quinoa’s high cost down:
[P]rices for quinoa have rocketed in recent years as demand exceeded supply…Prices tripled between 2006 and 2013 principally because quinoa’s adoption as a “super-food” in Europe and the US. […]
Now an international team of scientists say that they have taken a major step forward in understanding the genetic makeup of the crop. Using a combination of techniques, the researchers have produced the highest quality quinoa gene sequence to date. “By sequencing the genome we have provided the foundation to enable breeders to work much faster and more powerfully,” project leader Prof Mark Tester, from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), told BBC News. […]
The scientists believe that the genetic understanding now gained will allow them to breed shorter, stockier plants that don’t fall over as easily, and these benefits could be gained without the use of genetic modification. They believe that these new breeds will see quinoa grown in more parts of the world – and that greater supply will push down the price.
Scientific advancements like this one are what are going to help humanity’s teeming billions feed themselves in the coming decades. We’ve been warned by Malthusians that a growing global population is moving headlong towards mass famine as we outstrip the carrying capacity of this planet, but that sort of thinking dismisses our capacity to actually solve this problem. To that end, one of the more promising solutions we have at our disposal has to do with leveraging our increasingly refined understanding of the genetics of the crops farmers are growing into the production of said crops with higher yields.
Professor Mark Tester, the lead scientist on this quinoa gene sequencing project, believes that the price of the grain needs to come down “by a factor of five” before it can truly start to compete with staple crops like rice and wheat. Thanks to his work, quinoa is already on that path towards fulfilling, in his words, “the chance to truly add to current world food production.”
Armchair environmentalists share a deep seated fear and distaste for genetically modified foods, and the majority of them would likely bristle at this story just for having the words “quinoa” and “gene sequencing” in the same sentence. They’ll dance right past the fact that the potential quinoa crop yields to come will come from more selective breeding, rather than the kind of genetic modifications their ilk have made a public boogeyman.
This latest research can only be seen as positive news, whether you’re a fan of quinoa or not, because it represents yet another example of our ability to improve global food security in new, innovative ways. It would be nice if greens—the most likely group to snatch up this “supergrain” by the pound at their local Whole Foods—would start cheerleading this kind of gene-based food progress.