Earth First

Quinoa | A Climate Proof Food

Due to the effects of climate change, producing enough food for our growing world population is becoming an ever-greater challenge. In the future, our food security may well hinge on a small plant: the quinoa. It thrives in salty, arid and dry soils – just what we need in the extreme times that lie ahead.

'Around Lake Titicaca, quinoa has been cultivated for over 7,000 years in extreme conditions: at high altitudes, in harsh weather with strong windstorms, on arid, salty land. If a crop can survive there, it should be able to grow under any circumstances.'

These are the words of Byron Jara, consultant and quinoa expert for the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. In 2013, he helped organise the FAO's 'International Year of Quinoa'. The goal was to promote quinoa as a means to end world hunger.

The FAO has high hopes for this tough little plant from the Andes: 'We're working hard to get quinoa production started in many different places. With climate change, weather conditions are becoming more extreme, which means we have to look for crops that can withstand them. Quinoa is such a crop,' says Jara.

What makes quinoa so climate-proof? And will this crop be able to provide us with sufficient food now that our climate is destabilising? Let's start by looking at the possible impact of climate change on our food production systems.

Increasingly scarce farmland

According to the FAO, climate change poses a major threat to food security. Expected consequences include more extreme weather, water shortages, rising sea levels, higher temperatures, and loss of biodiversity – all of which have a significant impact on agriculture, and thereby on our ability to feed a steadily growing world population.

While some regions will be hit harder than others, the FAO expects that by 2030, the negative effects of climate change on food production will become increasingly apparent all over the globe. This process is already in full swing in many areas, particularly in tropical regions, where subsistence farmers are totally dependent on successful harvests for their livelihoods.  

Although estimates vary, the total amount of land suitable for agriculture will shrink significantly as a result of climate change. While northern regions are more likely to see an increase in arable land, South America could lose up to 21% of its arable land by the end of the century. Africa could lose up to 18%, Europe stands to lose 11 to 17%, and India 2 to 4%. Where those percentages end up will depend on how well we manage to curb climate change: according to the FAO, if the current desertification trend continues, Africa may even lose two-thirds of its arable land by 2030. 

Dr Sven-Erik Jacobsen, senior lecturer at the University of Copenhagen, conducts research into climate-proof agriculture. 'With climate change, local weather conditions are becoming increasingly unpredictable. Overall, variation in weather conditions is increasing; many areas are experiencing rainfall in shorter and heavier bursts, with longer periods of drought in between. The weather is becoming more fragmented and erratic.'

'That makes it extremely difficult for farmers to keep farming the way they're used to. For example, when does a certain season start and when is the best time to sow crops? When can you be sure that the risk of frost is over? What used to be certain is now a big question mark. But one thing is clear: if we continue growing the same crops we've always grown, there's no guarantee that we'll be able to produce enough food.'

Jacobsen was one of the first scientists to study quinoa. Since the mid-1980s, he has been researching the possibilities of quinoa production in our changing climate. Like the FAO and many other scientists, he is optimistic about this crop.

A climate-proof crop

'Quinoa is a unique crop,' Jacobsen says with noticeable enthusiasm. 'In terms of resilience to climate change, there's nothing quite like it. For example, it can cope very well with drought, which is an extremely important quality now that many places are faced with water shortages and longer periods of drought.'

'In the highlands of Bolivia, there are areas where nothing but quinoa grows. It thrives there, thanks to lots of sun, a minimal amount of rain, and a lot of variation in temperature. And it grows both on plateaus and along the coast, which means that this crop is suitable for production at various locations. It's now being grown in the US, in many places throughout Europe and Asia, and it's being tested in various locations in Africa. We've even been able to develop a variety that thrives in both North European and North African conditions.'

Increasingly salty farmland

According to Jacobsen, the most important property of quinoa that makes it climate-proof is its high salt tolerance.

'The salinity of our agricultural land is increasing. This is related to drought and irrigation; water used for irrigation always contains a certain amount of salt, which builds up in the soil over time. As droughts caused by climate change increase, more and more farmers have to resort to irrigation, which speeds up the process of salinisation.

Mark Tester, Professor of Molecular Biology at King Abdullah University in Saudi Arabia, says the salt tolerance of the quinoa plant was the main reason for mapping its entire genome.

'I wanted to find out which genes are responsible for this high salt tolerance. Initially, the idea was that this might help increase the salt tolerance of other crops, such as rice or wheat. But as I studied quinoa, I found that this plant has enormous potential in and of itself.'

Irrigating quinoa with brackish water

Tester is investigating whether quinoa can grow on water sources that until now have been unusable. 'Two-thirds of all the freshwater we consume is used for irrigation. Our freshwater resources are running out, and what's left is brackish water: salty water unusable for agriculture. If we could grow quinoa on brackish water, that would open up enormous opportunities – both in terms of preventing water scarcity and for our future food security.'  

Quinoa should be planted on marginal land, Tester continues: 'Almost every quinoa plant now growing outside South America is on arable land, replacing other crops, such as maize or wheat. And yet quinoa's huge potential lies precisely in the fact that it grows so well in places where no other crops will grow.'

'In Pakistan, Western China, North India, and so many other places throughout Asia, there are huge swathes of land where the water quality is deteriorating and the land is no longer suitable for conventional agriculture. The same applies to North Africa, where enormous quantities of brackish water sit unused. In those regions, quinoa can provide a complementary source of nutrition, thereby increasing food security.'

However, there is also a downside to using brackish water: even more salt would accumulate in the soil. But according to Tester, there is a solution to this problem: 'We need to create irrigation systems where the salt flows back to the ocean instead of accumulating in the soil. Sandy soils in particular are suitable for this purpose, as they allow salty water to pass through easily. In clay soil, however, salt tends to accumulate, so irrigation with brackish water would not be advisable there.' 

A miracle crop in its infancy

Thanks to its high drought and salt tolerance and its ability to grow in very diverse, marginal areas, quinoa is a great candidate to contribute to food security in times of climate change. However, quinoa does not yet excel across the board. Tester says there's still a lot of work to be done to make large-scale production more viable.

'I have great respect for all the work done by the indigenous peoples of South America over the course of thousands of years. But on a global scale, unfortunately, there have been no efforts whatsoever to really transform quinoa from a plant into a crop.'

Moderate yield

'Quinoa production currently averages about one tonne per hectare (approx. 1,000 lbs per acre) - or very little! That’s less than half the yield of wheat. In theory, we could produce much, much more - but in order to do that, we need to further "improve" quinoa. We need to increase the volume of both the seeds and the clusters at the top of the plant significantly.' 

Jacobsen, however, says we shouldn't be too obsessed with volume: 'In the most rugged areas of the Andes, where the crop originated, you can harvest around 500 kilograms of quinoa per hectare (approx. 500 lbs/acre). That may not seem like a lot, but no other crop can grow there, so this is really a lot better than nothing at all.'

'What we should also take into account,' Jacobsen continues, 'is that even if the yield is lower than that of wheat or maize, the nutritional value per kilo is higher.' Quinoa is high in protein, essential amino acids, vitamins, unsaturated fatty acids, and minerals. It contains about 6.5 grams of fat per 100 grams, which is triple the concentration found in wheat and almost double the concentration in maize. Furthermore, it contains 0.26% magnesium, compared to 0.16% in wheat and 0.14% in maize.'

All the same, Jacobsen is also keen to see an increase in the production yield: 'We only have a limited amount of land available, and we need to use it efficiently. In terms of volume increase, quinoa still has enormous untapped potential, as very little effort has been made to increase its yield, compared to major crops such as wheat and maize.'

Extreme heat is still a problem

In addition to the yield, we also need to work on the plant's limited heat tolerance. 'In view of climate change, heat tolerance is one of the most important characteristics of a crop,' says Jacobsen. 'While quinoa can withstand large temperature differences, it doesn't do well in really high temperatures – say above 40 degrees Celsius. Temperatures are never that extreme in the high plains of the Andes.'

Tester is currently looking into the possibilities of incorporating the heat-resistant properties of another wild plant into the quinoa genome. 'In Northern Argentina, where it can get extremely hot, we've collected seeds from a plant related to quinoa. We expect this plant to have genes that make it resistant to heat. Now that we've almost completely mapped out the quinoa genome, this research can go much faster than a few decades ago. We now know exactly which traits are governed by which genes.'

Bitter outer layer

One of the properties that quinoa could stand to do without is the layer of saponin surrounding its grains. This bitter outer layer probably discourages birds from eating the grains … and it's not exactly appealing to humans, either. Tester: 'This layer is scrubbed and washed off to improve the taste, but that requires a lot of water. So while we're on the brink of eliminating the need for freshwater to grow quinoa, we still need it for further processing of the grain. This is an important economic and environmental cost that we should try to cut.' 

Here, too, the genome can come into play, says Tester: 'We need to figure out how to turn this property on and off, so that we at least have the choice of producing quinoa without saponin. This would save a lot of water that can come in handy at other times, especially with increasing droughts coming our way.'

Another solution is to grow sweet quinoa varieties that are not coated with a layer of saponin. These can be found growing on a smaller scale in South America and in Europe. Alternatively, we could adapt the production process: in Denmark, techniques have already been developed to remove the layer of saponin without using water, says Jacobsen. 

In any event, while quinoa has beneficial properties in times of climate change, the crop is not yet fully climate-proof. The low yield, the limited heat tolerance and the layer of saponin are all aspects that need to be improved. If we manage to achieve all this, quinoa may well become the single most climate-proof crop on the planet.

Can it end world hunger?

For all his enthusiasm, Jacobsen believes that we shouldn't look to one crop to end world hunger: 'Quinoa can provide more food security than any other crop, but quinoa alone won't get us there. There are all kinds of other crops that have untapped potential, such as peas, lupins and lentils. And above all, we should really cut down on animal products, because they have a disproportionately large impact on climate change.'

'We urgently need a more diverse agricultural system. This is the only way we'll be able to defend ourselves against the increasingly erratic weather patterns that are on the horizon.'

Jacobsen explains: 'The variety of crops currently being grown is very limited. For example, just one type of wheat is being used on a large scale. If frost sets in later than we're used to, right when this variety is in full bloom, that could ruin the harvest. But if you grow different varieties, only part of the harvest is affected. With each variety growing at its own pace, something will always survive.' 

'Now that weather patterns are becoming less predictable and stable, it's important to grow a wide range of varieties and crops. Fortunately, interest in various older varieties of wheat, such as spelt, is on the rise in Europe. For quinoa, this means that we have to preserve the great genetic diversity it has today.' 

Curbing climate change

It's still uncertain whether a diversified agricultural system – including quinoa grown on marginal lands irrigated with brackish water – can provide the world's population with enough food.

After all, food security is about more than just food production. It's also a matter of distribution and access to food. A lot will also depend on our ability to curb climate change. It's impossible to predict up to which global temperature increase quinoa will still be able to feed us. In any case, for Jacobsen, the promising potential of quinoa does not make the fight against global warming any less crucial.  

'Even if we manage to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, this will still greatly impact agriculture as we know it. It's clear that we really need to step up our game to prevent the disastrous consequences of climate change. We definitely don't need more arid land than we already have at our disposal today to grow huge quantities of quinoa.'

The author originally wrote this piece for the Belgian outlet Eos Tracé. Read the piece in Dutch here.

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