By now you’ve probably heard of quinoa, the protein-packed grain that’s becoming a staple on restaurant menus. Your default might be to head to Whole Foods to buy it. But if you live in Los Angeles, you can just grab some from the side of the road.
Wild quinoa grows all over L.A. It’s actually thriving, despite the drought. And that’s caught Rick Jellen’s attention. He’s a plant geneticist at Brigham Young University, and he thinks this roadside weed could help feed the world.
Pick your dinner on Mulholland Drive
“It’s not like a pristine habitat or anything, not by any stretch of the imagination,” says Jellen, raising his voice above the traffic. We’re standing on the side of a windy, two-lane road in Los Angeles, not far from Mulholland Drive. Not exactly a pastoral paradise, but it’s ideal for what we’re trying to find: pitseed goosefoot, also known as wild quinoa. It’s growing all around us, just a foot or two from the pavement: thin stalks, about shin height, with purplish gray seeds.
“People don’t recognize this as a genetic resource,” says Jellen, funneling small seeds into a tiny manila envelope. “They recognize it as a weed.”
Jellen’s a little obsessed with this weed. When he spots wild quinoa on the side of the road, he beelines for it, swerving across oncoming traffic while cheerfully saying things like, “Let’s hope we don’t get T-boned!” He’s a plant guy, so he might be this fascinated no matter what. But we should pay attention, too.
Grocery-store quinoa is mainly farmed in the Andes in South America. It is adapted to that climate. But wild quinoa grows all over the place, in all kinds of conditions. As the climate shifts and growing conditions change, the hunt is on for foods that can survive challenges like extreme heat and prolonged drought.
Jellen thinks wild quinoa is one of these foods. Los Angeles, in its fourth year of drought, is a real-life laboratory. And right now, the wild-quinoa experiment looks like a success.
There are teams of scientists around the world collecting the wild relatives of many common crops, not just quinoa. These plants contain genetic secrets that could help all our food. But it’s a long way from the side of the road to your dinner table. Plant breeding can take decades, and in the meantime, someone has to keep an eye on the samples we have and make sure they stay alive.
That’s where people like Roger Chetelat come in. Chetelat directs the Tomato Genetics Resource Center at UC Davis – the country’s biggest store of tomato wild relatives. Hundreds of them are housed in a big, warm greenhouse. It smells a little like pasta sauce, but in some cases that’s the only clue that you’re looking at tomatoes.
Chetelat's mentor was the scientist Charles Rick, who collected a lot of the tomatoes in here from places where you’d never imagine a tomato growing. For example, Chetelat shows me one variety that doesn’t ripen, exactly.
“The fruit are probably about the size of a pea, abut the color of a pea, too. They're green and they never turn red,” he says. “They slowly dehydrate and they become like an eggshell.” That one’s called Solanum lycopersicoides – the Peruvian Wolfpeach. It’s a very distant relative of the cultivated tomato and grows only at 10,000 feet in a bone-dry desert. Just a few feet down is another, solanum jugulandifolium, that grows only in deep, wet jungle.
Fake bees and the future of food
Chetelat’s challenge is to keep these two very different plants happy in the same greenhouse – while making sure they grow as close as possible to the way they would in the wild. This means taking some things out of nature’s hands.
“We've eliminated bees in our greenhouse,” says Chetelat. Instead, they use an electric bee to pollinate each plant by hand.
“It’s not what you think, it’s not like a drone,” he says. “It’s a vibrator.” A kind of long metal stick.
This is the amount of control we’re talking about here. And it matters. Because how we eat in the future could depend on how well we understand the way these plants handle extremes.
“Having access to genetic sources of traits like disease resistance, increased yield, improved nutritional value of fruits -- those are all traits that are really directly relevant to consumers,” says Chetelat. It’s up to scientists like him and Rick Jellen to find those traits, and unlock the secrets of the wild plants. When they do, we may all look a little differently at the weeds on the side of the road.
This story was produced with support from the UC Berkeley 11th Hour Food and Farming Fellowship.