Quinoa grows in arid soil, but will the people eat it?
Scientists in Dubai are developing crops like quinoa that can thrive in the salty soils intruding into the world's crop lands. Winning over enough people to eat them is proving a greater challenge.
At an experimental farm within sight of the world's tallest skyscraper, researchers at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) are trying to help farmers in the Middle East and beyond to earn a living from unlikely plants known as halophytes. These plants, from trendy quinoa to obscure salicornia, flourish in salty and arid environments where staple crops like wheat or rice would wither.
Concerns about climate change, population growth and the degradation of fertile farmlands add urgency to the work of ICBA, which runs on a shoestring budget of $15m (about R211m) a year. The UN estimates that food production must increase 60% in 30 years to meet demand, whereas gains in crop yields are slowing.
"You can see the disaster coming. I can't understand why more people aren't acting to prevent it," says Ismahane Elouafi, ICBA's director-general. Governments are reluctant to invest in new foods and remain tethered to staple crops that "are just too demanding on water".
Through selective breeding, the nonprofit research institute developed five varieties of quinoa - a protein-rich, gluten-free grain that tastes like nutty rice - that grow especially well in salty soil. The centre is introducing them in Egypt and Morocco.
Agronomists at ICBA cultivate a patchwork of sandy plots on the fringe of Dubai's desert interior. A vault where the temperature is kept at 2°C safeguards the fruits of their efforts: 14,000 types of seeds from more than 250 plant species.
These seeds are enough for trial use, but a breakthrough to large-scale halophyte production requires government or business support. Planting a new crop is only the first step for ICBA, which operates projects in 28 countries from Senegal to Bangladesh and counts the US, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates among its top donors. The centre has to transform laboratory wins into commercial successes.
Changing palates has proven difficult.
Wajih Syed, co-founder of Kinwa Foods, spent more than two years persuading farmers in Pakistan to plant ICBA-supplied quinoa seeds in salty soils.
The grain can earn these farmers up to 20% more profit than wheat. Yet the grain remains a niche product. "Changing the eating habits of a thousand years is not an easy job," Syed said.