2013 was the International Year of Quinoa – as there hasn’t been a crop that’s had this honour since, perhaps it’s still not too late to consider quinoa. The story of quinoa is an important one beyond the fashionable marketing hyperbole of quinoa as a ‘superfood’, and perhaps especially important if you suffer from gluten intolerance.
Botanically, cereals, such as wheat, rice and maize, are in the grass family (Poaceae) and provide grain for the foundation for the world’s food supply. Quinoa is quite unrelated, and is in the amaranth family (although previously classified in Chenopodiaceae botanists now include this family within the Amaranthaceae). Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), amaranth (Amaranthus spp) and buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum and F. tartaricum) are all referred to as pseudocereals to highlight their botanical distinction from true cereals. Other chenopods (as we might still refer to the plant-family-formerly-known-as-Chenopodiaceae) include spinach and beetroot, as well as both a significant number of agricultural weeds and the Australian saltbushes characterising much of our landscape such as old man saltbush (Atriplex cinerea) and bluebush (Maireana sedifolia) and the samphires (or glassworts) (Sarcocornia spp and Halosarcia spp) colonising salt flats. Quinoa is an annual herb typically growing one to two metres high that, in flower, is similar to amaranths such as Prince of Wales feather.
The oldest known cultivation of quinoa appears to date back 7000 years to Peru. The Incan cultivation systems were remarkably sophisticated and transformed the landscape with terracing, canals, and irrigation networks. The harsh Andean environment meant that agriculture was viewed as a form of warfare. Historian T. N. D’Altroy suggests, “The Incas approached farming with weapons in their hands and prayers on their lips”. The Sapa Inca Emperor planted the first seeds of each new season using tools made of gold and sought the sun god Inti’s favour to ensure a good crop. The Inca god Qullqa, as personified in the constellation Pleiades, was also called upon as the patron of seed storage and preservation. The constellation also marked certain agricultural seasons. ‘Qullqa’, is also the name for the massive stone silos built by the Inca. After 1532, the Spanish colonisers prohibited the growth of quinoa in an effort to extinguish pagan ceremonies viewed as inimical to Catholicism. Quinoa production was supplanted by less productive and nutritious European cereals and continued to be cultivated only in remote areas in the Andes for local consumption. While one of many Andean crops that reached Europe through the so-called Colombian exchange, quinoa has remained an insignificant crop in Europe.
Famed Russian botanist, geneticist and plant explorer Nikolai Vavilov recognised the high Andes of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia as one of eight centres of origin for world crop diversity. From this environment, and from a plant family as well known for adaptable crop weeds as for economic plants, perhaps the genetic diversity of quinoa is unsurprising. While there has been rapid erosion of quinoa’s genetic diversity in recent decades, quinoa still demonstrates astonishing diversity. Quinoa can grow at relative humidities from 40 percent to 88 percent, temperatures from -4 to 38 °C, tolerates both poor and excessively free drainage, yields with rainfalls as low as 100 to 200 mm and is cultivated on acid and alkaline soils (with a pH from 4.8 to 8.5). However, optimal conditions are required for high yields, which can be up to five tonnes per hectare. During domestication, the Andean peoples selected genotypes for different uses: chullpi for soups, pasankalla for toasting, coytos for flour, reales forpissara (or grains) and ayaras for nutritional value (as well as for agronomic purposes including utusaya to resist salinity), witullas to resist cold, kcancollas to resist drought, chewecas to resist excessive humidity, quellus, or yellow seed, for high yield and ratuquis for early growth. Most of the world’s supply still comes from this region – with arguments about the impact of global demand on subsistence farmers being fairly evenly divided. In Australia, quinoa is still a boutique crop that’s been most productive in cooler and wetter conditions in Tasmania – see kindredorganics.com.au/produce.
The botanical distinction of quinoa is also apparent in nutritional analysis. Quinoa contains all the essential amino acids including lysine and the sulphur amino acids, which are typically deficient in cereals. Indeed, quinoa’s protein composition, and protein and fat content, compare very favourably with milk and eggs. However, the seed coat of quinoa contains saponin glycosides that require removal to ensure access to quinoa’s nutritional value. Quinoa is gluten-free and high in total dietary fibre, minerals (especially magnesium, calcium and zinc) and is a range of vitamins.
As a botanist I was introduced to quinoa as Chenopodium quinoa. English pronunciation was quin-oa – in both cases. Keen-wah? Quinoa originates as a crop grown in the high Andes by the Quechua people, and the word quinoa (or quinua) comes to us from the Quechua language via the Spanish. Condor and llama, cocaine and quinine have reached English by the same route and I doubt we expect a native Quechua speaker to recognise our pronunciation. The anglicised (and botanical Latin) versions of these words aren’t required to adhere to their origins – I’m still inclined to quinoa but it’s up to you.
Stephen Forbes, Director, Botanic Gardens of South Australia
Originally published in The Adelaide Review on 27 May 2015.