Livestock agriculture contributes 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. This fact was thrust into the media’s attention earlier this week when Lord Stern, the author of the influential Stern Review on the costs of tackling global warming, declared that people will need to reduce their consumption of meat if we are to take climate change targets seriously. Whatever your views on this statement, it is clear that home-grown produce is the best source of food if we are to reduce our carbon footprint. Yet the question in many people’s minds is whether a plant-based diet can meet our nutritional requirements for protein? With less livestock would it be feasible to grow everything required for a well-balanced diet?
In fact, the idea that plants do not provide good sources of protein is largely an outdated myth. It is true that many of our staple plant foods do not contain such concentrations of protein as meat. However, a balanced diet of vegetables, coupled with grains, nuts, seeds or legumes gives ample protein for optimal health. It is only when the majority of foods we eat are highly processed, rather than a range of whole-foods, that the protein and nutritional balance suffers.
However, not all plants are nutritionally equal. There are some plant foods that are particularly good as sources of protein and, surprisingly, they can be grown in a variety of climates. I had always been under the impression that the best vegetable protein sources were soy and pulses such as lentils, which are difficult to grow in England. So I was delighted to find the Real Seed Catalogue listing high-protein grains such as Quinoa suitable for our climate and set out to grow some this year.
Quinoa is remarkable – an ancient plant that has been called ‘the gold of the Incas’ due to its origins in South America. Although usually thought of as a grain, it is actually related to the spinach, chard and beet family (Chenopodium). It is a complete source of protein (all the essential amino acids) and has an impressive list of health-giving properties. Better still, it is very easy to use – the grains are slightly larger than couscous and are cooked in a similar way to rice, with little spirals of white germ appearing as they expand. It goes well with most meals you would traditionally serve with rice such as curries, stews and tagines.
Growing quinoa was easier than I expected. I started the seeds off in small pots and then planted them out in late May. Unlike common grains like wheat, just a few plants are required and are spaced 2 feet apart. By the start of August they were approaching 6 feet tall and needed staking to prevent them flopping over in high winds. I chose the ‘rainbow’ variety and sure enough the seed heads started to be tinged with red, amber and green by September. Keeping an eye out for the first fallen seeds proved to be the best way to tell when they were ready for harvest.
Processing the grains was more tricky. I followed the online instructions to rub the plant heads over a soil sieve which gets most of the grain out, along with some little bits of plant falling through. I left this to dry out for a day or two and then set about the biblical process of winnowing the seed from the chaff! This was much harder than it looked and involved pouring the seed onto a cloth on a windy day so that the little plant bits were blown further away than the grain and repeating the process 3 or 4 times. In the end I had to pick out some bits and accept that about 15% of the grain was never going to get separated.
Commercially produced quinoa must be processed very thoroughly because when I cooked it there was a noticeable bitterness to the water which comes from the saponins that need to be washed off the seed. By changing the water half way through cooking I was able to eliminate this and the results were excellent. Quinoa expands more than rice, so you need less of it for a good meal. From my five plants I harvested about 700g (1.5lb) of uncooked quinoa – enough for a good portion for about 10 people - but I think this could be increased with practice at the processing stage.
Was it worth it? Yes, it was very satisfying to know that this amazing grain could be grown by me at home. Would I grow it again? If I had more space then I would certainly consider it and I may well try some other quinoa varieties in the future. It was resilient, pest-free and low-maintenance – perfect for locations that are not ideal for other plants. Most importantly it passed the taste test, not only for me but when served up to guests as well. It may not be the whole solution to greenhouse gases from livestock but it was a very interesting experiment. Quinoa certainly deserves more attention as a promising protein of the future passed down from the ancient Incas of South America.
Please do add a comment if you have grown grains, nuts, seeds etc... and I may add details of another grain, amaranth, later in the year when I have finished harvesting it.