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By Amira Sayed

Will quinoa, the “Mother of all grain”  for the ancient Andean civilisation of the Incas (The first civilisation of south America) become something of the sort for Egypt? That still remains to be seen. But with the Ministry of Agriculture planning to expand its cultivation as a possible substitute for wheat it is a valid question.

 

The country’s great dependence on wheat, which makes it  the world’s top wheat importer, has made a search for a  substitute inevitable in order to ensure food security.

 

The campaign is also part of the government’s unrelenting efforts to lessen imports and overcome water shortage and climate change hurdles.

 

The Irrigation Ministry has, for example, curbed the cultivation of rice, which is hugely dependent on water  for its cultivation. The growing need to rely on  other sources of water than the Nile  for crop irrigation made this essential.

 

Agriculture is the country’s largest water consumer. And the Irrigation Ministry reduced the area cultivated in rice from 1.7 million feddans to 724, 000 feddans. This step, according to the  ministry,  helps save nearly three billion cubic metres of water.

 

Rice, according to the ministry, requires 6,000 cubic metres of water per feddan while quinoa needs approximately 500 cubic metres. The ministry also pointed out that quinoa can help reduce the cultivation of certain types of wheat which consume large quantities of water.

 

According to the Supply Ministry, the country is planning to import seven million tonnes of wheat in the 2018-2019 financial year.

 

Quinoa is a seed with a high nutritional value as it is rich in iron and fibre, protein, zinc, magnesium and calcium besides a number of other minerals. A gluten-free crop, it can be ground into flour to make various types of bread. It can also be used in making biscuits, desserts, baby food and quinoa flakes.

 

“Quinoa is the crop of the century. It can be grown in very tough weather conditions, showing a high productivity. It can be cultivated in newly-reclaimed zones and salty soil,” Ahmed Gad, Professor of Economic Agriculture at Benha University, told The Egyptian Gazette.

 

As the country steps up its efforts to reclaim new land, quinoa is the most suitable grain to be grown in those areas. It is unlike other grains which require certain types of soil and good weather conditions, Gad said.

 

“In this way, the country can make the best use of the new reclaimed areas and, in the meantime,  put a  dent in wheat imports,” he said.

 

According to the Agricultural Research Centre (ARC), a single feddan of salty soil can produce one tonne of quinoa. Quinoa was first cultivated here in 2005 in a project implemented by ARC in co-operation with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

 

 It was planted in Nuweiba in South Sinai to test the crop’s adaptability to tough, dry weather conditions. Amazingly, it flourished. It showed great productivity. And this prompted the FAO to announce that quinoa could play a major role in resolving malnutrition problems and food shortages in developing countries.

 

Quinoa, the ARC said, showed adaptability to new irrigation systems which rationalise the use of water in agriculture. “Quinoa, I think, is a suitable alternative to staples, like rice and wheat.  I think it is the crop of the century,” Gad said.

 

Other experts said quinoa could be a supplementary crop but it could not replace wheat or rice. “First, its taste is different from that of wheat. And this would  require a lot of work to change people’s perception of this crop. The country cannot entirely rely on quinoa as an alternative to wheat,” Mohamed Shahbour, a Professor of Agriculture in South Valley Governorate, told The Gazette.

 

He said the government can expand the cultivation of quinoa with the aim of exporting it and earning hard currency for the country. “Quinoa exports can help ease the financial burden of wheat imports, helping the country strike a balance. But quinoa cannot replace wheat in the local market,” he said.