What's the Next Quinoa? Farmers, Foodies Revive Heritage Grains

Ancient grains and "orphan crops" like fonio and amaranth have advantages for farmers and consumers.

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.