What's Old Is New

Nutritious quinoa proves to be an excellent crop for Colorado growers

It's been said that all things come back into style if you wait long enough, but the 5,000-year wait for the return of quinoa is a longer cycle than most.

This ancient, sacred crop of the Incan culture was recently rediscovered, and as it is becoming known for its health value, it is becoming a more popular crop for Colorado farmers. Sarah Ward, a plant breeding and genetics researcher for Colorado State University Agricultural Experiment Station, became charmed by quinoa's history when she spent several years in Ecuador with the British Volunteer Program. Ward has been one of several people responsible for reviving interest in this native South American crop.

Although quinoa is just now being noticed in North American health food stores, Ward says that our perception of it as a "new" crop isn't appropriate: Quinoa was one of three main crops in the Incan Empire, along with potatoes and corn. Traces of the crop have been found in ruins dating back thousands of years. Traditionally, it's been boiled like rice, popped like popcorn, or ground into flour.

"I became fascinated with quinoa because it got lost, unlike corn and potatoes," said Ward. "I have two theories about its disappearance. One is that quinoa seeds don't last very long, especially if they get wet. When the Spanish returned to Europe from the New World, the quinoa seeds would likely not have survived the trip. We also know that the Spanish imposed Catholicism on the Incan people, and part of that practice would have been to destroy all vestiges of native Incan religion. Quinoa was a sacred crop, known as the "mother grain," or the ultimate fertility symbol. It could not have been grown, on penalty of death, and only survived in remote villages where the Spanish didn't find it."

In those remote villages, a Bolivian scientist started collecting the crop for research in the 1960s. Then, in the 1980s, another scientist introduced quinoa to the United States and Colorado.

When cooked, the tiny sesame-seed sized grain swells to about half the size of a grain of rice. "It's tremendously healthy," says Ward. "It's high in protein – about 15 percent – and high in lysine, an amino acid that's rarely found in plants. That makes quinoa an excellent source of lysine for vegetarians. It also contains no gluten, making it an alternative to wheat. Quinoa leaves may be eaten as a salad, too, and are high in vitamin C. The leaves taste like spinach, and the grain is slightly sweet and nutty — somewhat like wild rice."

Because the crop is so ancient and so little is known about it, Ward began by researching its genetic makeup. With that information, she's working on varieties that can be grown more successfully in Colorado's climate, developing hybrids with a shorter stem, shorter growing season, higher yields, and larger, whiter seeds. Ward has been DNA fingerprinting varieties to identify parent lines for hybrids, but she has no way of knowing how old each variety she's working with may be.

Quinoa is a tough crop to cross-pollinate because when in bloom, each quinoa stem produces thousands of tiny flowers. Only by crossing varieties with naturally occurring mutants found in the field has Ward been able to begin producing hybrids. She's also working to build a hybrid without a saponin layer. Saponin is a bitter, hard shell around the seed that gives the plant a defense against birds and insects that are pests in its native area.

The crop is already very drought tolerant, so it's successfully grown in dryer areas of Colorado, such as the San Luis Valley. It can survive on as little as 8 inches of annual moisture and thrives on 10 to 12 inches.

"About 90 percent of quinoa found in health food stores in the United States is imported from Ecuador or Bolivia," said Ward. "So the United States product is only meeting a fraction of the market demand. Quinoa is still a niche market in health food stores, but it's becoming more and more popular."