National Geographic News

Andrea Stone

for National Geographic

Published July 8, 2014

Once as popular as corn in Mexico, amaranth was more or less forgotten for centuries before its recent revival there and in other countries. Now, the crop’s edible seeds could be "the new quinoa."

That is, unless teff—a tiny grass seed eaten in Ethiopia for millennia—becomes "the next quinoa."

Then again, the "next quinoa" might just be fonio, a hardy cereal that's been grown for thousands of years in West Africa.

Ever since quinoa was rediscovered a decade ago—launching a worldwide craze for the Andean grain that sent prices soaring so high that many Bolivians are now unable to afford their own staple crop—farmers, foodies, and marketers have been hunting for other forgotten "orphan crops" with global market potential.

There's a lot more at stake than food fads. As the global population grows, climate change eats at farm yields, and food becomes more processed and less nutritious, sustainable agriculture advocates are looking to the past for healthy ways to feed the nine billion people expected to inhabit the world by 2050. (Read "Food Ark" in National Geographic magazine.)

They're increasingly turning to grains that have been the basis of subsistence farmers' diets in Africa, South Asia, and Central and South America since the time of earliest agriculture. Because such grains adapted to grow on marginal land without irrigation, pesticides, or fertilizers, they are often more resilient than modern commodity crops are.

And the grains have undergone little if any genetic tinkering, which is appealing to the growing organic and non-genetically modified food markets. Another selling point: These nutrient-rich, often gluten-free grains are considered by many health experts to be "superfoods" that can help people lose weight and live longer.

Benefits for Producers, Consumers

Take fonio. As the cost of imported rice has risen, a Senegalese nonprofit group called Environmental Development Action in the Third World is trying to expand the market in sub-Saharan Africa for this drought-resistant, protein-rich cereal, the continent's oldest.

Though cultivated for more than 5,000 years, fonio is rarely eaten by city dwellers, who prefer wheat or rice. Yet the translucent, gluten-free grain—which has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and is considered "the seed of the universe" in Mali's mythology—can survive drought and needs no fertilizers.

Those qualities make fonio a good crop for developing nations in West Africa and elsewhere that are dealing with the fallout from climate change, which has withered or drowned crops as extreme weather events have multiplied.

Consumers in industrialized nations have their own reasons for trying heritage grains. Millet, sorghum, wild rice, and teff contain no gluten, a big selling point at a time when wheat intolerance and celiac disease are on the rise.

Ancient wheats such as spelt (also called farro), Khorasan, einkorn, and emmer also rate lower on the glycemic index, which measures how carbohydrates raise blood glucose. They also provide more protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals than commonly available grains do.

Quinoa alone has seen a fivefold rise in consumption in the past five years, according to the Whole Grains Council, an industry group. Chia, the seeds of a Latin American herb once known mainly as a novelty item that grew "fur" on terracotta "pets," is gaining in popularity on kitchen tables as a topper for yogurt, cereal, and salads.

Sales of amaranth are soaring as well. The seeds have plenty of calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium, as well as protein and fiber. Yet the grain disappeared in Mexico five centuries ago, after Spanish conquistadors and the Catholic Church banned it because it was mixed with human blood in Aztec rituals.

Now, efforts are under way in Mexico, which was recently declared the world's most obese country by the United Nations, to reintroduce the gluten-free seeds in hopes of encouraging a more healthy and sustainable diet.

Plants like amaranth are "resilient to drought, high temperatures, and disease, so they might be the crops of the future," says Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank, a think tank focused on sustainability. "It's a case of where going forward means we need to go back."

Nierenberg says many local, ancient grains were originally neglected by the so-called green revolution of the mid-20th century, which promoted hybrid commodity crops that "grew faster, grew bigger, and produced more yield." With their relatively low yields, the ancient foods just couldn't keep up.

Diversifying for Doomsday

Today, the world has more than 50,000 edible plants, yet just three commodity crops—rice, maize, and wheat—provide 60 percent of the plant-derived calories we eat.  With such heavy reliance on so few foods, the consequences of crop failures due to disease, drought, floods, and other catastrophes that could be driven or exacerbated by climate change mean more food insecurity for the planet.

"This narrow food basket cannot sustain ever-growing populations," says Stefano Padulosi of Bioversity International, a global research organization that helps smallholder farms grow and market neglected and underutilized species. "We must diversify."

That impulse fueled the founding of Norway's Svalbard Global Seed Vault, nicknamed the "Doomsday Seed Vault," a repository deep inside an Arctic mountain that has set itself the ambitious mission of safeguarding seeds from every known species on Earth. (See "Doomsday Seed Vault's New Adds: 'Space Beer' Barley, Brazil Beans.")

Besides preserving common varieties, the vault has sought ancient seeds and wild crops that are particularly resilient to harsh conditions, which could come in handy in a worst-case scenario. For now, the seeds are being kept safely in the deep freeze.

Native American Rice

For North American Indians working to conserve and cultivate heirloom seeds that are closely linked to their history, identity, and health, the mission is more local but no less urgent.

Tribes in the American Midwest and Southwest are "reclaiming their own cultural resources as a way to deal with contemporary problems" like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity, says Craig Hassel, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota's Department of Food Science and Nutrition.

He works with the Anishinaabe nations of Minnesota, which, like other native tribes, suffer from some chronic diseases that were virtually unknown before they were exposed to European foods.

In recent years, the tribes have reached out to plant scientists at the University of Minnesota to relay concerns about the threat of genetically modified varieties of manoomin, their ancient wild rice. Manoomin is integral to Anishinaabe culture; their creation story tells of prophecies that instructed the tribes to move west in search of food that grows upon the water, like rice.

In 2007, Minnesota adopted legislation mandating research and an environmental impact statement before any field release of genetically modified organisms near tribal lands.

The move was welcomed not only by native peoples but also by their artisanal-minded clients, including the Common Roots Café and the Wedge Community Coop, both in Minneapolis.

Hassel, an extension nutritionist, understands the yearning for what he calls "food sovereignty" over the food supply.

"When Western science comes in," Hassel says, "the response almost universally among indigenous communities is, 'How can you perfect what is already perfect?'"

Jeff Hertrick contributed to this report.

John Kennedy
John Kennedy

For those that are not aware, Teff is the staple cereal in Ethiopia (maize comes second, followed by wheat and barley). Teff  flour is used largely to produce Injera, a flat slightly spongy pancake. I am not so familiar with Sudan, Yemen, Djibouti and Eritrea and Somalia where I understand that it is also eaten. The harvested ripe straw and ear is harvested and made into small "haystacks" located in the farmers compound and then hand winnowed to remove the grain when required with the straw used to feed animals.

k fitz
k fitz

I wonder what the need is out there in the nation or world for small farmers to begin growing these orphan grains to add into the food supply? I agree with the previous poster (David Barber) about keeping corporations out of production.  If there can be a benefit to small farmers like me to grow these plants to put into the market, and that I can continue to support my family, I'm on board.  It seems that nature has provided these to us, and somewhere along the way we've lost them and decided as a whole that processed foods are 'better'.  I like the idea of getting our food supply back to the basics; back to the way they were intended or us to consume.

Don Sandwell
Don Sandwell

I really enjoy quinoa and grains lower on the glycemic index really work for me.

Vincenzo Lo Scalzo
Vincenzo Lo Scalzo

Will receive NG when I return from France to Milano and read the edition, this background journey to search old cereals is a good suggestion for R&D and evolution of agriculture in atipic lands of the Planet. Quinoa is a master peace of country life at 4000 meters, as well I expect some coming out from the Asian higher quote local crops that have not yet found resonance in our western debates. Thanks for twitter reproduction, will use my best to translate the concepts presented. Somebody may like to prepare a deeper research at Milano EXPO or at this fall round table at Milan by AgoraAmbrosiana.

Thanks to Jeff contribute!

Tracey Madden
Tracey Madden

Interesting article. But to price native people out of being able to afford their own staple is despicable!

Patrick Fueta
Patrick Fueta

Three crops i.e  (maize, corn and wheat) are currently depended upon to feed 60% of the world population, if the governments of the world could appreciate the basket of food you have talked about both nutrition and medicinal problems would  to a large extent be compounded.

Elise Villemaire
Elise Villemaire

Seems like California's Central Valley farmers should be looking at fonio also. Our current drought is likely to be more like a new normal here. But we might continue to supply the nation if they got away from water-hogs like almonds and focused on drought tolerant foods like fonio.

David Barber
David Barber

We can only sustain these crops if the price doesn't go through the roof.  If we grow these just for profit, then they will prove to be useless, as the people they  were meant to feed won't be able to afford them. It's high time we kicked corporations out of the food business.

jerry mills
jerry mills

@David Barber  David, no one  grows crops for charity. Every grower does it for one kind of profit or another. Big growers survive because they are more efficient than little growers. They do not set prices, markets do it according to supply and demand and they are better able to meet the demand. If prices/demand is predicted to be low many will switch crops to get better returns for their labor/investment. It is the market place at work , not corporations/big farmers.

Jakob Stagg
Jakob Stagg

@David Barber Nobody is going to become involved unless it is profitable. It will not be as profitable if it is abundant.

It is about making money, not saving or preserving the human race.

Colleen R
Colleen R

@jerry mills @David Barber  You forget that the corporations use extensive advertising to develop a market.  They also add ingredients to tickle the taste buds.  These efforts make the demand biased. 


Popular Stories

  • 'Extinct' Bird Rediscovered in Myanmar

    'Extinct' Bird Rediscovered in Myanmar

    The Myanmar Jerdon's babbler was thought to have gone the way of the dodo—until scientists stumbled across it during a 2014 expedition.

  • Lost City Found in Honduras

    Lost City Found in Honduras

    A joint Honduran-American expedition has confirmed the presence of extensive pre-Columbian ruins in Mosquitia in eastern Honduras, a region rumored to contain ruins of a lost "White City" or "City of the Monkey God."

  • Astronomers Find a Galaxy That Shouldn't Exist

    Astronomers Find a Galaxy That Shouldn't Exist

    Small, young galaxies should be free of interstellar dust, but an object called A1689-zD1 is breaking all the rules.

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »