Buckwheat consumption can increase agroecosystem diversity and boost food security

April 21, 2017 by Prof. Achim Walter
Buckwheat consumption can increase agroecosystem diversity and boost food security
Buckwheat produces seeds with interesting properties and attracts different pests than cereals. Credit: iStock / Drbouz

What will it take to make our agroecosystems more diverse and secure? Take buckwheat, for example – an ancient grain-like plant with considerable potential. It's not related to cereals, yet produces storable seeds and can taste anything from deliciously tart to bitter.

About 50% of the earth's usable land surface is currently dedicated to the production of food; increasing this percentage would cause major problems for the environment and the world's climate. The world's population is also growing and becoming more demanding, as the consumption of meat and other animal products in previously vegetarian cultures becomes more fashionable and is viewed as a status symbol. But for every trend there is a counter-movement – in our culture, more and more people are turning vegetarian, or even vegan. As a rational plant scientist and self-professed currywurst lover, I can see both sides of the argument.

Fruit and veg alone won't fill us up

But there's one thing that's really starting to annoy me, even about myself: as a symbol of the rational need to make vegetarian food appealing to us, we are constantly shown colourful images of delicious old varieties of apple or tomato, funny-looking pumpkins and exquisitely misshapen carrots. Sure, I understand the logic behind it – we know the plants, associate them with a particular taste and get something colourful to look at.

But, ultimately, they're just side dishes. We flexitarians fill ourselves up on wheat, rice and potatoes, i.e. on the few individual crops that have dominated our fields for decades. If we all seriously wanted to live off tomatoes, we'd need several Earths to grow them all.

Buckwheat is part of the knotweed family. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Competition for the traditional calorie suppliers

To significantly increase the resource efficiency and diversity of our agricultural production systems, we need to acknowledge that it's primarily the big calorie suppliers that make the difference. How do we grow them? What can we use to replace or improve them? How can we alter crop rotations so that our top sources of nutrition are no longer grown every second year, but perhaps every third? Pulses offer one answer, breeding another. And a third? Pseudocereals.

These are plants that we can grow like cereals and that produce storable seeds with similar product characteristics to grains, but which are not in fact related to grains and thus attract different pests – pests that don't yet pose a problem and will take decades to become as destructive as today's rampant grain pests.

A plea for pseudocereals

The three most important pseudocereals are buckwheat, quinoa and amaranth. All three can be grown easily in Switzerland. Quinoa and amaranth originated in South America and have now made their way into our health food and organic stores. Buckwheat comes from Asia and, for many years, was a widespread crop in Europe too. It was only in the 20th century, after progress was made in the breeding and cultivation of cereals, that it was relegated to second fiddle.

Buckwheat seeds. Credit: iStock / BsWei

So buckwheat still has the potential to make up a larger portion of our diets and supplement the current big calorie hitters. Although its seed yield remains around half of that of the big cereals, the nutritional value of its proteins, its antioxidant and fibre content, and the absence of gluten make it extremely interesting. The whole sprout can also be used as green manure or animal feed. As a main field crop, buckwheat will bloom from June to August, with its pink/white flowers offering a feast for the eyes – and the bees.

What are the disadvantages?

Buckwheat is inferior to wheat in terms of baking quality – and in terms of yield, due in part to its asynchronous ripening process. The flowers bloom sporadically, followed in a similarly sporadic and lengthy fashion by the seeds. The plants' full yield potential can thus never be fully realised, as a significant portion of the seeds have already fallen before most are ripe – and even then, many of the seeds remain unripe. And then there's the taste. Some find it bitter, others nutty. In any case, buckwheat certainly has a unique taste – in contrast to rice or wheat – and can be made into deliciously tart pancakes or pasta.

How we can all play our part

What will it take to bring more buckwheat into our agroecosystems? First and foremost: enough interested buyers. If we really want more diversity in our fields, we should eat more locally grown buckwheat, quinoa and amaranth – or put pressure on retailers to stock them. Then the movement towards modern plant improvement will really pick up speed: the first fragile research findings are bearing fruit; breeding is worthwhile; high-yielding, synchronous varieties are emerging (as already exist in Russia for buckwheat). We researchers have made our small contribution by examining the existing diversity, carrying out taste tests and starting to describe the genomic diversity. Now it's the consumers' turn.

Explore further: Gluten-free noodle revolution: The quest for chewier, non-allergenic buckwheat

Related Stories

Germination can make buckwheat more nutritious

May 14, 2015

With the increasing demand for food with health benefits, high nutritional value food materials are attracting more attention from both consumers and food manufacturers.

Polish researcher patents zero-calorie wafers

January 11, 2011

You can eat all you want and not gain a gram, Polish academic Joanna Harasym promises of her freshly patented zero-calorie buckwheat hull wafers which are also gluten-free and rich in antioxidants.

Pioneering crops for future generations

January 18, 2016

By 2050, the global population is expected to increase to 9.6 billion people. The world will need more nutritious, affordable, and environmentally sustainable food—exactly what the EU funded project PROTEIN2FOOD has committed ...

Recommended for you

Researchers find means by which mushrooms glow

April 27, 2017

(Phys.org)—A team of researchers from Russia, Brazil and Japan has uncovered the means by which two kinds of mushrooms glow in the dark. In their paper published on the open-access site Science Advances, the group describes ...

Using rooster testes to learn how the body fights viruses

April 27, 2017

Our bodies are constantly under siege by foreign invaders; viruses, bacteria and parasites that want to infiltrate our cells. A new study in the journal eLife sheds light on how germ cells - sperm and egg - protect themselves ...

Fukomys livingstoni, I presume?

April 27, 2017

Two new species of African mole-rat have been discovered by researchers at Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), together with colleagues in Tanzania and at the University of Pretoria.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.