Amaranth on the Move
In the News
December 30, 2013
Amaranth is a highly nutritious broad-leafed plant native to Mexico, and cultivated in Mesoamerica for approximately 7,000 years. Bushy with brightly colored flowers that produce thousands of seeds, amaranth, like its cousin quinoa, is not a true cereal. Technically a pseudo-cereal, its seeds can be ground into a flour that can be used in cereals, breads, muffins, pancakes and in dulce de alegria, a candy-like confection made from popped amaranth mixed with sugar or honey. Oh, and it’s naturally gluten free.
But amaranth hasn’t had an easy go of it in the marketplace, and the grain’s complicated history dates back thousands of years. In its heyday, amaranth production in Mexico reached around 20,000 tons per year, compared to the current production of around 3,000 tons. Why? Amaranth was nearly eradicated with the Spanish Conquest because of its dietary, religious and cultural importance in the Aztec society. As a result, amaranth almost disappeared completely from Mexico, nearly erasing a traditional indigenous diet with important nutritional benefits.
Today, an organization called Puente a la Salud Comunitaria is working to advance the health and well-being of rural communities in Mexico by fostering the cultivation, consumption and commercialization of amaranth. A crop with amazing potential, Puente believes amaranth is not only culturally significant, but it is also a highly nutritious, adaptable super-food native to the area.
Hope Bigda-Peyton, Development Director for Puente, and Puente Executive Director Peter Noll, say that amaranth provides an important alternative to improve the public health problems Mexico currently faces. Mexico recently surpassed the United States in obesity. And at the same time, the country suffers high rates of malnutrition in rural areas.
“It may come as a surprise, but recent research discusses the dual burden, which is understood that children, who are malnourished at an early age, have disproportionate rates of obesity in following years. Amaranth is a local food solution that can be scaled up,” says Bigda-Peyton and Noll.
Since amaranth can be grown almost anywhere that corn can be grown, it is highly versatile to local conditions – and producing the crop locally is a major focus of Puente. By growing more diverse and healthy foods, local people can save on their food budgets, improve their diets and increase their food security. When taking into account the importance of seed saving and the protection of genetic material, it is also vital that local people preserve their native environment, which includes food sources and other natural resources. The economic benefits for local farmers are significant, too.
“There is a lot of discussion around the environmental footprint of a local food system. While there is no guarantee that locally produced and distributed food will provide a net gain in terms of environmental impact, the practices of agro-ecology seek that end goal. There are many benefits to a local food system and with amaranth’s incredible nutritional value, all the more relevant to bring back this native plant to the region,” says Bigda-Peyton and Noll.
While rolling out amaranth to the general public seems like the logical next step, Bigda-Peyton and Noll caution rushing into things. The case of quinoa, they say, shows us the potential dangers of rapid commercialization without taking into account community and environmental wellbeing. The explosion of quinoa on the global market may have helped raise farmers’ incomes, and thus empowerment within a cash economy, a net positive, but it also could have put quinoa out of the reach of peasants due to its higher price, causing them to substitute it for cheap processed foods in areas that have long struggled with malnutrition. So it’s a delicate balance.
“Taking into account this cautionary tale, it is critical to ensure community and environmental wellbeing first as amaranth is marketed and rolled out on the global market. This is why Puente primarily focuses on promoting the family level consumption of amaranth first, and afterwards works with small farmers to promote commercialization. We need to make sure that diverse stakeholders are involved in the success that could be generated by taking a holistic and sustainable approach to promoting amaranth. We have a people-based mission and we see great potential for amaranth, but it is so much more than a commodity crop.”
If American markets are to see amaranth anytime soon, it will only happen with foreign production, says Bigda-Peyton and Noll, since the U.S. farm system is focused more heavily on cash crops. On the other hand, they add, quinoa only took a decade to enter the Western Markets, so only time will tell. They do believe, though, that retailers and the food industry are already ready for amaranth, and they hope that food policy, economics and grassroots movements would put sustainability over short-term profits.
Bigda-Peyton and Noll add, “A long-time Mexican amaranth farmer shared, ‘Amaranth is synonymous with hard work.’ Indeed, it is easier to plant sorghum or other cash crops. We farm amaranth because it is part of our livelihoods. I would imagine the future would look quite different, if we understood food production with that perspective. We would hope that future benefits are fairly distributed among the participants who promote amaranth initiatives.”