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A worker dries quinoa grains at Irupana Plant in El Alto, La Paz, Boliva, in this photo from 2011.

REUTERS

Could a South American grain soon be blooming on Canada's prairies? Quinoa, the grain with the unpronounceable name (Kin-wah) and the subtle nutty flavour, has tripled in value over the five years as people around the globe enjoy this high protein and low fat alternative to better-known grains.

The price of quinoa has tripled in the last five years, bringing economic prosperity to growers in Bolivia and Peru, but making it difficult for residents of the Andes to afford their traditional grain. The issue exploded in the news recently when The Guardian published an article blaming vegans in the industrialized world for hunger in the Andes.

Though quinoa is an excellent vegan option as it contains a wide range of amino acids, it is also popular with people looking for gluten-free options. Twitter and the blogosphere have been abuzz with the issue; are vegans causing Peruvians to go hungry? Does the economic gain of selling quinoa on the global market offset cultural disruption? The unspoken assumption in the discussion this week has been that quinoa will only grow in the Andes; this is not the case. Canadian farmers can grow quinoa, and indeed are doing so.

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Quinoa is a very robust crop, tolerating poor soils and extremes of temperature, and it grows well on the Canadian prairie. An extensive 2005 Albert government report called quinoa a "Cinderella grain" that could, if prices continued to rise, prove highly profitable to Canadian farmers. They note that for industrial production to occur, higher yielding varieties of quinoa will be needed, but they suggest quinoa as a possible crop for smaller farmers who can afford to experiment with new varieties and techniques. Once Canadian farmers perfect their techniques for growing quinoa, they can easily meet world supply, allowing prices to decline. Quinoa could be a needed good news story for Canada's agricultural industry. These good news stories however, will not happen without a healthy agricultural research climate.

Canada's ability to identify potential crops and create new hybrids suitable for Canadian farms is under attack. Canadian universities are suffering from annual across-the-board cuts, and agricultural research, which is expensive and time consuming, is often the first area to go. In addition, there is an ongoing conversation about whether research dollars should be focussed on so called "top tier" universities, with little thought to where those institutions are located. These large research institutions are overwhelmingly located in urban areas, and most of them no longer even offer agricultural programs.

Excellent work is still being done at our smaller schools, but Canada's rural agricultural universities are in danger of being left behind. Outside of the academy, government funded research is also disappearing; Agriculture Canada has suffered through years of cuts, and B.C.'s Food Innovation Centre in Chilliwack was forced to close its doors last November after its funding was cut by the federal and provincial governments, leaving a research gap one of Canada's most important agricultural regions.

Agriculture is often portrayed as a conservative industry where change occurs over centuries. This image of red barns and haystacks is a poor representation of a high technology, global industry that survives on constant innovation and experimentation. Canada may emerge as a major quinoa producer, and if so we will have a once-vibrant research culture to thank. The crops of tomorrow will only succeed if we invest in research today.

Lenore Newman is Canada Research Chair, food security and environment at the University of the Fraser Valley

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