Quinoa: Ancient grain being grown in UK
It's an ancient "superfood" which has been grown high in the Andes for thousands of years, but one man from Shropshire wants to make quinoa as British as tea and scones.
Know where to look when buying food, and you'll find bags of quinoa seed (pronounced "keen-wah") on the shelves, mostly likely imported from South America.
The small and unassuming grain is loved by those in the know, who enjoy its fluffy texture and slightly nutty flavour as much as its health benefits.
Packed with dietary fibre, phosphorus, magnesium and iron, the couscous-like grain is also gluten-free and easy to digest. It contains all nine essential amino acids, and is rich in protein.
However, increasing Western demand has been blamed for its skyrocketing price and unavailability for people in the countries it first came from.
But there could soon be a home-grown solution.
Plant science PhD student Stephen Jones loves it so much, he wants to be the first person to grow and sell British quinoa for human consumption.
"The British Quinoa Company was officially set up in 2012, although our roots go back to around 2006 when we first started experimenting with quinoa production on our farm," he says.
"I believe the rising demand for quinoa is based around people's changing attitudes towards their health, moving away from processed food with low nutritional value, towards foods that are much more nutritious."
Bolivia and Peru account for more than half of the annual 70,000 tonnes of quinoa produced, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, with the United States another major player in cultivating the grain.
Stephen Jones wants to capitalise on the trend for "home-grown" British-produced goods - in fact he holds exclusive rights to growing UK strains.
"It's really important to us to make the business environmentally responsible, minimising our impact and encouraging wildlife wherever possible," he says.
The Andean peoples first domesticated quinoa around 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, regarding the "mother grain" as sacred.
Although scores of varieties exist in the Andes, three are most widely cultivated and available: white, red, and black.
There is even a royal variety, which only grows in southern Bolivia. Its grain is larger and contains more protein, vitamins and minerals than its more common relative.
Commercial types of quinoa:
- White quinoa: The most common kind available, and is often just labelled quinoa. Sometimes also called ivory quinoa
- Red quinoa: Chefs have said this type holds its shape after cooking a bit better than white, so is suitable for dishes such as cold salads
- Black quinoa: A bit earthier and sweeter than white quinoa, black quinoa keeps its striking black colour when cooked
Widely adaptable, quinoa will thrive in temperatures ranging from -8C up to 38C, at sea level or at 4,000m (13,120ft) above, and the crop is not impacted by low moisture.
This means it could be a successful crop on British soils.
But despite only taking four to five days to germinate, and 90 to 120 days to harvest, Stephen Jones says it has taken him seven years to be able to grow a full commercial crop.
"This has only been possible with lots of field experiments to test different quinoa varieties and different crop production methods," he says.
"We've had lots of failures along the way and we've certainly still got lots of work we can do to improve the crop."
Unlike wheat or rice, the tiny, bead-shaped grain is a complete protein - containing all nine of the essential amino acids.
The United Nations has not only declared the grain as a super-crop because of its health benefits, the general assembly went as far as declaring 2013 the "International Year of Quinoa".
Secretary general Ban Ki-moon has called it "extraordinary" and a "cultural anchor" in the Andes, adding it could reduce poverty and lead to environmentally sustainable agriculture.
In July, Peru's Central Reserve Bank (BCR) launched 10 million new coins featuring three of Peru's main natural resources - quinoa was one of them, highlighting the importance of the Andean grain.
Peruvian exports of quinoa have increased fivefold in recent years to almost 7,000 tons in 2011 according to the Ministry of Agriculture to meet demand in North America, Asia, and Europe.
Increased demand has made quinoa far more expensive than other grains or soybeans, so many poorer people in Peru and Bolivia can no longer afford what was once their staple food. Imported junk food is now often cheaper.
In the UK, Stephen Jones's business is a family affair, with his dad helping him with the majority of the day-to-day work and crop research on their Shropshire farm - his mother, partner and aunty also help out.
"In the short term we hope to rapidly increase the hectare-age of quinoa we are growing, and then make the product widely available to the consumer," he says.
"In the long term I would really like to develop a range of branded products such as dried grains, ready to eat pouches, quinoa salads and dried quinoa pasta as examples.
"I believe it is 'a' grain of the future.
"It would be foolhardy to think that quinoa could ever replace current staples such as wheat and rice, but with it's excellent nutritional profile we will certainly start seeing quinoa as a much more commonly used ingredient."
The National Farmers Union (NFU) in Shropshire says while there's nothing particularly unique about the county's land or climate for growing quinoa, it supports the work to develop the crop.
"The farming family growing it [quinoa] in Shropshire should be applauded for their efforts to develop it as a food crop and it would appear they are doing some pioneering work," says county advisor Helen Cork.
"There is a burgeoning market for healthy grains and quinoa is known for being nutritional, high in protein and has real appeal, including for those on a gluten-free diet," she says.
"The plant is frost hardy and while we know about its more exotic roots, I believe it is being grown commercially in France so that suggests there is a healthy market for it closer to home.
"If it can be grown across the Channel why not here?"