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Can Quinoa Take Root On The 'Roof Of The World'?

For thousands of years, quinoa barely budged from its home in the Andes. Other crops — corn, potatoes, rice, wheat and sorghum — traveled and colonized the world. But quinoa stayed home.

All of a sudden, quinoa is a trendy, jet-setting "superfood." And as we've reported, some American farmers are trying to cash in on its new-found popularity.

But, seriously, would you believe that quinoa is now growing in a remote, mountainous part of Central Asia that British explorers called the "Roof of the World"?

Indeed, it has landed in Tajikistan and Kyrgystan, thanks to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, which has become a cheerleader for quinoa. The FAO, recognizing this crop's nutritional quality and its ability to grow in dry and salty environments, has sponsored tests of quinoa in various nations of Asia and Africa.

According to an FAO press release, quinoa plants at one farm in Tajikistan are more than six-feet-tall and appear to be thriving.

Cataldo Pulvento, a researcher at the Institute for Agricultural and Forest Systems in the Mediterranean in Italy, helped with the quinoa trials in Tajikistan and Kyrgystan. In an email, Pulvento tells The Salt that the FAO is not promoting quinoa as an export crop; the agency hopes that it could become a source of nutritious food for the local population.

Kyrgystan and Tajikistan both import much of their food. They don't get much rainfall, and much of their land isn't well-suited for growing crops.

Quinoa, though, is used to harsh conditions. It tolerates the arid highlands of Bolivia and Peru. So, why not the arid highlands of Central Asia?

For similar reasons, the FAO is also sponsoring trials of quinoa in the United Arab Emirates, where farmers struggle with salty soil. Quinoa, as it happens, can also grow in highly saline conditions.

So far, these trials are simply to try and figure out whether quinoa will grow in these areas. No one knows whether the people will want to grow it, or eat it.

"The [Central Asians] I met can be divided in two categories: the skeptics and the enthusiasts," Pulvento says. The skeptics believe "it will never be sold on the domestic market because no one knows quinoa." Some fear that it could become a weed.

The enthusiasts, he wrote, hope to grow several acres of quinoa starting next year and offer it for sale at the market.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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