At the sixty-sixth session of the United Nations, the General Assembly named 2013 the International Year of Quinoa. When I tell people that, they often laugh — most Americans know quinoa as the latest in a string of superfoods that cycle through the shelves and bulk bins of their local high-end grocery. But this grainlike seed is not another blue-green algae or pomegranate juice. Indeed, in the context of a looming global crisis, the darling of the Whole Foods set may be a godsend.
As the earth’s population approaches 9 billion, the Malthusian prediction that humans will outgrow our ability to feed ourselves seems increasingly plausible. Meanwhile, agriculture faces a slew of environmental challenges: erosion, desertification, salinization, water scarcity, and, of course, climate change.
Quinoa might be a big part of the solution. It provides significant amounts of calcium, iron, fiber, essential fatty acids, and vitamin E, and is (unlike any other plant food in the world) a complete protein, with adequate stores of all nine of the amino acids that the body can’t synthesize itself. More to the point, it is remarkably resilient. It thrives in soil saturated with salt. It tolerates cold and drought. Sven-Erik Jacobsen, a Danish agronomist who has studied the plant for more than twenty years, put it this way: “If you ask for one crop that can save the world and address climate change, nutrition, all these things — the answer is quinoa. There’s no doubt about it.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environmental Reporting Network (FERN), an independent nonprofit focusing on food, agriculture, and environmental-health issues.