Why quinoa needs to become top of the crops in Egypt

With water increasingly scarce and land unable to produce enough rice or wheat for a growing population, the Egyptian government is turning to the South American supergrain

Quinoa grains during harvesting in Challapata, Bolivia, South America. Bolivia is one of the world largest exporter of the high protein grain. Wednesday May 12, 2010 Photographer:Lisawiltse/Bloomberg
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Earlier this year the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture announced a national campaign to expand the cultivation of quinoa. The announcement came on the heels of similar initiatives across the region as concerns about food security and the effects of growing populations and climate change have become increasingly palpable.

The reasons behind the push towards quinoa cultivation are many. The hearty grain, which originates in South America and has been a staple in Peru and Bolivia for millennia, requires little water and is ­particularly resilient to harsh conditions and high levels of soil salinity. It is also extremely nutrient rich, high in amino acids, minerals, and protein. The ministry also hopes the initiative will help to reduce the country's dependency on wheat imports.

Egypt is the largest importer of wheat globally, with roughly half of what is consumed annually coming from abroad.

Following the April announcement, some began to wonder if quinoa would start showing up in Egyptian koshari (a popular local dish consisting of rice, lentils, chickpeas, pasta, tomato sauce and fried onions). However, in a country where wheat – and what it’s used for – is such a cultural and culinary centrepiece, little attention was initially paid to the challenges of both producing enough of the grain to satiate a rapidly growing population and successfully introducing use of the grain in day-to-day life.

FBFTKX Kushary - Egyptian food. Image shot 2015. Exact date unknown. arapix / Alamy Stock Photo
The traditional Egyptian dish koshari Alamy

In Egypt, bread is such a dietary staple it is known locally not as the Arabic word “khubz”, but as “eish”, literally meaning life. It has been heavily subsidised since the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s second president, who served from 1956 to 1970, and has been a cornerstone of popular uprisings, from the Bread Riots of 1977 when the government attempted to remove the subsidies on basic foods to the 2011 Revolution when protesters took to the streets demanding “bread, freedom, and social justice”. The significance of wheat cannot be overstated. But with growing water scarcity, increasing patches of precious land no longer able to support rice and wheat cultivation, and a glaring inability to produce enough grain to support a massive population, the government has begun looking for alternatives.

Quinoa has been cultivated in Egypt since 2005, first in the south of Sinai to test its resilience to harsh conditions. Soon after, it was introduced in Upper Egypt by local community leaders as a less expensive means to provide schoolchildren with nutritious meals; offering similar nutrients and proteins as milk with a smaller price tag. These operations also began serving a niche market in the urban centres, where wealthier Egyptians and foreign residents were well-versed in the nutritional benefits of the trendy grain and willing to pay top dollar for it at high-end grocery stores.

In Egypt, and indeed in the region at large, quinoa remains an expensive and relatively low-yielding crop. “The maximum we have produced here, spending like maniacs, is 750kg per feddan [0.4 hectares], which is very low,” a local grower who asked not to be named tells me.

Low yields, few growers, and high production and processing costs, mean the precious grain remains quite costly. “Quinoa is a niche product and it will remain a niche product,” the grower explains.

Despite this, many scientists have been pointing to the promise of crops such as quinoa to help feed the growing regional population in increasingly harsh environmental conditions.

Mark Tester, professor of plant science at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, is one such scientist. He recently led a team that, mapping the genetic sequencing of the plant, discovered the gene responsible for the production of saponins – the naturally occurring bitter chemical compound that must be removed prior to consumption. They affect the flavour of the grain and increase the cost of production.

According to the scientist, the ­biggest selling point of quinoa is its salt tolerance. It can be grown on land that is degraded and irrigated with low-quality water. “Quinoa is already an amazing plant, but if it’s truly going to replace wheat and rice, it needs to be domesticated more,” Tester explains.

Despite it’s long history, this grain has only been partially domesticated, and to grow fruitfully in the region, the heat-sensitive plant needs to be modified. “You don’t need to be overly dramatic about it that it won’t produce seed in Egypt, because it will, but there will be a couple of bad moments.”

As a result, Tester and his team are working to improve the heat tolerance of the plant. “I think that is very important if we’re going to get it across North Africa and the Sahel, the Middle East, and West Asia.”

Besides reducing its sensitivity to heat, quite a lot of work still needs to be done before quinoa will realistically be able to compete with other grains in the region. The grain size must increase, and the branching and height of the plant must be reduced. Tester estimates this whole process will take about 10 years.

When the government initiative was presented by then minister of Agriculture and Land Reclamation, Abd El Moneim El Banna, sold it not only as a way of reducing dependency on wheat imports, but also as an opportunity for new jobs, a means to cultivate reclaimed land and to create new agricultural zones. For the local grower, at current yields, the two grains simply cannot be compared. “It’s like comparing foie gras and meat,” he says.

Then there’s the question of obtaining a sufficient number of seeds for large-scale cultivation. Currently quinoa seeds are highly protected by Peru and Bolivia, and obtaining both a diversity of them, as well as enough of the crop, is particularly challenging. And while domestication ­continues in labs, the plant as it is currently grown still requires treatment. The local grower says “you need to educate people on how to clean it. The farmers growing it will have to sell it to a middle person who has to clean it, which costs money and water.”

Organic Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa) seeds in spoon - macro close up background texture. Getty Images
It will take time and education before the grain is used as a replacement for rice and wheat Getty Images

Despite scepticism, the Ministry of Agriculture and Land Reclamation in collaboration with the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation have mounted a campaign to promote growing quinoa and to educate Egyptians on the value of the crop. Ragab Abdel-Azim, Undersecretary at the Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation, recently announced the expansion of the grain’s cultivation in the Beni Suef governorate, saying that the grain consumes a mere 30 per cent of the water required for wheat.

Multiple outlets have presented information on the grain for mass consumption, indicating that the government strategy is not to replace traditional wheat and rice with quinoa, but rather consider the grain as a complementary item, calling on Egyptians to gradually start including the grain in one form or another in their diets, perhaps most notably, by encouraging the substitution of 10 to 20 per cent of the wheat flour used in bread with quinoa flour to raise the nutritional value of the loaf. However, Mahmoud Madani, head of the Agricultural Research Centre, says only about 32 hectares of land are allocated to cultivating the grain, which is nowhere near enough. Nor is this kind of supplementation cost-effective, he says.

Despite the challenges, with proper implementation, the introduction of the national campaign now is prudent. “If you’re introducing a new crop, you can’t grow the crop because nobody’s going to buy it, and nobody’s going to buy it because it’s expensive, because not many people grow it. You have to break this cycle, and I’m convinced if we’re able to decrease the price of the grain by making it easier to grow, the cycle will break,” says Tester.

And while work is simultaneously being done to increase the salinity tolerance of wheat and rice, Tester believes it is unlikely that another grain will surpass the resilience of quinoa. “I think there will be many situations where the only option is quinoa,” he says.

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