According to the United States Department of Agriculture, grains account for more than half of the calories consumed by people in developing countries. Yet, over the last few decades, grain production has been narrowed to only a limited number of varieties – wheat, for example, has over 200,000 varieties, yet only a few genetic lines are being used. Such dependence on a limited number of crops has proven problematic, especially because of rising food prices, climate change, and health concerns.

This indigenous woman is collecting amaranth, an indigenous plant of Central and South America which is helping to provide nutrition and income for local farmers. (Photo credit: Slow Food International)This indigenous woman is collecting amaranth, an indigenous plant of Central and South America which is helping to provide nutrition and income for local farmers. (Photo credit: Slow Food International)Today, Nourishing the Planet highlights five grains which are not yet as well known, but provide promising alternatives.

1. Amaranth

Both a grain and a green, amaranth was once as fundamental to the Central and South American diet as corn and beans. Yet after the height of its cultivation during the Aztec civilization, this food has largely disappeared. Now, the non-governmental organization Alternativas y Procesos de Participación Social (Alternatives and Projects for Civil Society) has organized over 1,100 Mexican families in the effort to recover this valuable crop.

Although the plant is beautiful, with brilliantly colored flowers and large green leaves, it is also extremely hardy and able to survive in very arid conditions. Amaranth is highly nutritious, with high fiber and protein content, as well as lysine, an essential amino acid which most cereal crops lack. The plant is extremely versatile – it can be eaten as a vegetable, dried and used as a spice, or turned into a gluten-free flour. The leaves of amaranth are also edible, and possess higher levels of iron than spinach, and toasted amaranth seeds are often used to make traditional sweet foods.

The native Mexicans from over sixty farming villages working with the Alternativas cooperatives have integrated amaranth into their cropping system, and have banded together to begin producing amaranth food products. Rising levels in both production and demand for this nutritious crop are promising for both local people’s incomes and the health of people worldwide.

2. Dista Rice

In Madagascar, rice accounts for about 70 percent of the diet for small farmers, and plays an important part in religious and ritual activities. There are many different types of rice, but one variety, a pale pink grain discovered in only 2000, has become wildly popular and provides great potential for local Malagasy farmers.

The Dista rice, named after the farmer who first discovered and cultivated it, is very rich in vitamins and produces consistently high yields. Malagasy farmers have also been using System of Rice Intensification (SRI) methods to further increase their harvests. SRI, which was developed in Madagascar in the 1980s, helps farmers to grow stronger and higher-yielding crops while using less water, fertilizers and pesticides. As harvests have increased to 8-10 tons of rice per hectare (about 2.5 acres) for farmers using the SRI methods, more than 200 farmers have organized into cooperatives to sell their rice and raise money to purchase equipment.

According to Slow Food International, demand for Dista rice is now equal to that of native or imported white rice. As Malagasy farmers continue to improve their production and increase harvests, they are able to improve both their lives and their environment.

To learn more about SRI and Dista rice, see “Madagascar’s ‘Magic Rice ’- Dista Rice.”

3. Freekeh

Freekeh (also known as farik) is a type of wheat which is harvested prematurely and roasted. It is very nutritious, with high fiber and protein content, as well as rich in nutrients such as calcium and iron. Freekeh is used in a number of dishes across the Middle East, and is beginning to see an emergence in Western markets as well.

Freekeh is a specialty of the Jabal ‘Amel region of Lebanon, where the seeds have been passed down within families for generations. A combination of the area’s unique soil composition and processing methods gives the green cereal its characteristic toasted aroma. Freekeh production in Jabal ‘Amel is now being threatened however by large quantities of industrially produced freekeh from Syria and by subsidies from the Lebanese government for tobacco cultivation.

In an inspiring program, Slow Food Beirut, Oxfam Italia, and the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity have partnered together to revive the production of freekeh in its native region, while also helping to improve the living conditions for the citizens of Jabal ‘Amel. This area was particularly hard hit during conflict in 2006. By working with the remaining local producers, this project aims to establish sustainable and successful freekeh production in the region, which can also improve the livelihoods of the local farmers.

4. Red Fife Wheat

Red fife wheat was first introduced to the country in 1842, when a farmer from Glasgow sent some seeds to his friend in Ontario. Its adaptability to extreme weather and the Canadian cold allowed it to flourish, and within twenty years, the wheat was being grown across Canada.
Over time, the popularity of the wheat diminished, as farmers shifted towards growing hybrids of the Red Fife by the 1920s.

This changed in 1988, when Sharon Rempel, an environmental activist who was working at the time to recreate the wheat crops being grown during the 1880s at The Keremos Grist Mill historical site, received a pound of Red Fife seeds from a plant breeder. After planting half of the seeds in the heritage wheat garden at The Keremos Grist Mill, the benefits of the variety quickly gained attention.

Besides being very adaptable to a wide range of growing conditions, including the arctic cold of the Canadian plains, Red Fife is very productive without requiring high inputs of chemicals, and its flour has become very popular among bakers, who value it for its high quality and strong taste, perfect for making sourdough bread. Since being reintroduced, nearly 1 million pounds of Red Fife was harvested in Canada in 2007, from that original one pound of seeds in 1988.

5. Finger Millet

Although millet is only beginning to enter Western food markets, it is already a central part of diets in Africa and Asia. Finger millet, an indigenous variety which originated in the highlands of Ethiopia and Uganda and then spread to India and South Asia approximately 4,000 years ago, is one of the most widely cultivated varieties, and one of the most nutritious grains of the world’s major cereal crops.

Nearly 4.5 million tons of finger millet is produced annually, which provides important nutrients to people across East Africa and South Asia. Millet is high in starch and iron, and its proteins are easily digested.

Millet survives well in dry areas and its grain is resistant to rot and insects, making it an important crop in food security strategies of many poor farming communities. It is very labor-intensive to harvest, and policymakers have recently snubbed it as a “poor person’s crop,” leading to a decline in production. It is currently undergoing a resurgence, however, as yields in India have increased by 50 percent in the past 50 years and acreage is increasing in Nepal by 8 percent annually. In Kenya, millet sells for twice the price of sorghum and maize, and half of all cropland in Uganda is currently dedicated to millet production.

As awareness of this important crop and its nutritional value increase, farmers in other dry areas of the world may also be able to start cultivating it, holding great promise in helping to feed the world’s population.

To read more on finger millet, see “Finger Millet: A Once and Future Staple.”

Jenna Banning is a research in tern with the Nourishing the Planet project.