From the lab: Helping seeds of superfoods chia and quinoa take root in India for nutrition security

Chia seeds are very rich in omega-3 fatty acid and alpha linolenic acid while quinoa is a pseudo-cereal with high protein content and can be used as a low-carb, high-protein substitute for rice.

By: Express News Service | Updated: July 20, 2015 6:13 pm

The research: Developing indigenous varieties of ‘super foods’ chia and quinoa to make the nutrition-rich grains affordable for Indian consumers.

Malathi Srinivasan and team, Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysore

chia, quinoa

For three years, four of our lead scientists have been working on a project to develop an indigenous variety of two highly nutritious grain crops that are grown and used widely across the globe. Chia and quinoa, dubbed ‘super foods’ for their superior nutritional value, are consumed as seeds and can be beneficial supplements in a country like India that has a high index of malnutrition. Seeds of these plants are currently imported from Australia, the US and South American countries like Bolivia, and are sold at around Rs 2,000 per kg.

Chia seeds are very rich in omega-3 fatty acid and alpha linolenic acid while quinoa is a pseudo-cereal with high protein content and can be used as a low-carb, high-protein substitute for rice.

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There were quite a few reasons why CSIR-CFTRI took up this project. The most important was the desire to introduce and popularise food crops that are high on nutrition. Countries generally grow crops for meeting food demand or for commercial reasons. The nutritional content of the crop may not often be the main consideration. Here, we are trying to safeguard nutrition security.

The other reason was the ease with which these crops can be grown. What is helpful for Indian soil conditions is that these two crops require very little water.

Farmers in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu were the first to receive these improvised seeds, and they have found it to be very profitable. The fact that they require less water and give surplus yields from multiple crops in a year provides an edge in the market. Since the crops of the future have to be less dependent on water, these two crops could be ideal to grow, without compromising on nutrition. The key, of course, was to make these two crops suitable for Indian conditions. Only 0.001 per cent of seeds produced by these plants show genetic mutations. Finding the right seeds which will then produce plants more suitable for Indian soil was the most difficult exercise. The plants thus produced then had to be ‘stabilised’ — they need to show the same properties for at least three generations before they can be said to have adapted to local conditions.

After all the tests, the improvised seeds were distributed to farmers for growing. About 700 farmers from Tamil Nadu and many more from Karnataka were given these seeds for free. The produce from their first crop has been very successful and are being sold at Rs 200 per kg. While this is a welcome price for the farmers, the current cost of these grains is still too high for them to be able to compete with rice. Our estimate is that after the third year, the prices may stabilise at around Rs 70 per kg. Very recently, a farmers’ cooperative joined hands with an industry for processing these seeds. Many more farmers are likely to join once the benefits of the seeds become evident. Our expectation and wish is that both chia and quinoa seeds become a part of the normal Indian diet very soon and everyone should be aware of their health benefits. There will be no requirement for importing these seeds and paying huge amounts just in order to be healthy.

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