(ABC4) – It wasn’t long ago that quinoa took the health food world by storm. Seemingly overnight, the whole grain “superfood” was suddenly everywhere: from trendy, overpriced food bowls, to equally overpriced salads, to the local supermarket.
But Los Angeles foodies weren’t nearly the first to discover the potential of this protein-rich grain. According to Smithsonian Magazine, quinoa has been eaten in the Andean region of South America for at least 5,000 years. That’s way before the modern health-food craze got word of it.
And though Brigham Young University’s involvement with quinoa is considerably more recent – a team of four plant geneticists at the school began working with the grain 22 years ago – they were still ahead of the times.
Though the team of researchers – much like the health foodies – were interested in the potential the grain had for human nutrition, their motivation behind investing in quinoa wasn’t to be ahead of the curve when it came to popular foods.
“At the time, not a lot of people knew what quinoa was,” Rick Jellen, one of the four original researchers on the project says. “But we understood, because of research that had been done, that quinoa had tremendous potential because it is almost a perfect plant source of protein for human nutrition because of its amino acid content.”
With this knowledge in their back pocket, the team got to work on modifying the quinoa genome to make it more conducive to growing in a wider variety of climates. Because quinoa is native to the Andes Mountains, and typically grows at around 10,000 – 12,000 feet in elevation, the nutritious grain was not initially suited for growing operations in places like Utah.
“It’s just too hot, or too dry, or there are new insect pests that quinoa isn’t naturally adapted to,” says David Jarvis, who was a student when the project began and returned to help with ongoing research after receiving his Ph.D.
In order to combat this, the BYU researcher team crossed quinoa with natural relatives of the plant that were found natively in North America.
“We can cross those wild, weedy relatives with quinoa to try to bring in new traits like heat tolerance, or drought tolerance, while keeping the good traits of quinoa like a big, white seed that the consumer wants,” Jarvis says.
And in creating a quinoa variety that is more conducive to a different climate, the research team also created the potential for providing food to developing nations struggling with food insecurity.
“When we look at food insecurity around the world, our problem is that we are reliant on maybe just five different plant species,” says Jeff Maughan, who is part of the research team and an expert on plant genomes. “What we want to do is increase the number of different plants that we’re utilizing in our diets.”
The team has received a grant from the USDA to fund the project, and under the grant, the researchers have identified over a dozen nations – including Morocco, Mexico, Vietnam, Kenya, and Pakistan – as partners in the project. Through the partnership, the BYU team sends seeds of quinoa cross-population to these countries for implantation into the soil.
In Malawi, for example, BYU sends seeds to the School of Agriculture for Family Independence (SAFI), which was developed by the Nu Skin Force for Good Foundation. At this school, local farmers are taught to plant, fertilize, and harvest the crops, and then can take the skills they’ve learned back to their own communities to provide food.
“Quinoa really is an international crop,” Maughan says. “And we really want to make sure that it doesn’t just get focused on U.S. agriculture.