Quinoa might seem so 2012, but recent scientific studies out of Saudi Arabia mean that you (and your friends and family around the world) will be eating more, not less, of it in the future. And in new forms, too.
Perhaps you feel you’re up to your ears in quinoa. Between 2006 and 2013, its designation as a “super-food” (yawn) caused prices to triple (and imports to skyrocket—according to Quartz, the U.S. imported 70 million pounds in 2013 compared to 7 million in 2007). But despite its trendiness (and high nutritional value), quinoa remains an expensive food affordable only to the middle classes of richer countries.
By mapping the quinoa genome, however, a team of scientists at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia—who were attracted to quinoa for its potential to thrive in poor soils like those with high salt levels in the Middle East—are hoping to change that, the BBC reports. (Gene mapping and quinoa? We really are in the twenty-first century.)
A greater understanding of the seed’s genetic makeup has already led to a key discovery: The team has pinpointed one of the genes that controls the production of saponins, bitter and toxic compounds that protect the plant from predators but the removal of which drives up the cost of production. By breeding plants to grow without saponins, scientists hope to drive down these costs and, consequently, the price of quinoa across the board.
“If we get to a similar price to wheat,” the BBC quoted project leader Professor Mark Tester as saying, quinoa “can be used in processing and in bread making and in many other foods and products. It has the chance to truly add to current world food production.” Quinoa, the scientists believe, can benefit more than solely the well-off consumers of well-countries.
But what will happen to the quinoa growers themselves? A 2016 paper from Towson University concluded that an increase in the purchase price of quinoa correlated with an increase in the welfare of the average household in the region (meaning that the benefits extended to non-growers and their families, too). But will those benefits hold if the price of quinoa drops to that of wheat? Or will the whole production process be upended?