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April 1 2014 7:49 AM

Radical Eating

What will be the next quinoa? That’s up to you.

Amaranth.
Amaranth: the new quinoa?

Courtesy of Nomadic Lass/Flickr

The typical Western diet—heavy on meat, starch, and sweets—is taking over the world. From Mexico to China, changes in what people eat are driving up rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

Research published last month underscores another disturbing consequence of this energy-dense diet. If the cheeseburger and fries don’t kill you, the food system that sustains it one day could—by putting food supplies in peril.  

The largest global survey of crop diversity and diets conducted to date, released last month, paints a bleak picture of global food supplies. Countries are 36 percent more reliant on the same staple crops than they were 50 years ago. Just 50 crop commodities provide more than 90 percent of calories, protein, and fat around the world.

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To paraphrase folk singer Greg Brown, it’s as if “the whole world struggles to become one bland place.”

It’s not just that our food choices are dull. It’s a recipe for disaster.

The big three cereal crops are wheat, corn, and rice. Improvements over the past five decades in breeding and growing these three crops have helped feed the world. But annual yield improvements in these same crops are slowing and are expected to start declining after the 2030s because of climate change. And pests will have a field day (pardon the pun). A fungal pathogen of wheat, a stem rust dubbed Ug99, evolved to infect wheat varieties once resistant to the fungus. It has spread throughout Africa and into the Middle East and poses a serious threat to global wheat production.

With 2 billion more mouths to feed by 2050, those are daunting vulnerabilities.

Staring at global crop data for the past year had an impact on Colin Khoury, an American researcher based at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Cali, Colombia, who led the new analysis of global crops. He’s been thinking a lot about what he calls “radical eating.” It sounds hardcore, but it’s actually pretty simple—eat more of the world’s less popular foods.

“I didn’t realize until I saw the data that, in a world where soybean and palm oil have become dominant oil crops, it is a radical thing to drizzle olive oil on my pasta,” says Khoury. He still eats wheat and rice, but, when he can, he eats unique or local varieties, anything to promote diversity in the agricultural system.

At least 7,000 species of plants could be eaten by humans. The hard part is getting even a few of these edible species on a supermarket shelf, much less on a fork. Most of the so-called neglected, or orphan, crops are eaten primarily as traditional foods in small pockets of developing nations, if at all.

Quinoa was once a neglected crop. Until recently, this ancient grain was a staple of South American highland farmers. The recent quinoa craze was made possible by two notable characteristics: The gluten-free, high-protein grain is loaded with eight essential amino acids, and health food nuts were willing to pay top dollar for it. Since the 1980s, the world harvest of quinoa has almost doubled, and its market price jumped 600 percent between 2000 and 2008.

Researchers worldwide spend considerable effort looking for the “next quinoa.” It’s not as easy as you might think. First, people are picky eaters. Second, most edible species in the world’s complex, disconnected global food system have had little scientific attention. It’s often not clear what type of culinary qualities a plant possesses or could easily be bred to have.

“Everybody knows what to do with wheat because the crop has been grown, eaten, processed, and bred for thousands of years,” says Sean Mayes, director for biotechnology and crop genetics at the Crops for the Future Research Centre in Malaysia. Increasing wheat yields leads straightforwardly to more bread, pasta, cereal, and beer. That’s not often true for neglected crops.

There are two primary ways to help a neglected crop get a spot on a plate: Create demand or create supply.

Celebrity chefs may be the main ones able to spark demand—especially if the new ingredients boast superfood-like nutritional benefits. Kale sales soared 40 percent last year after celebrity chefs (and actress Gwyneth Paltrow) touted its health benefits. Kale chips even made it on Wolfgang Puck’s Oscar ceremony menu this year.

But it takes hundreds of farmers and researchers to create supply.

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