British-grown quinoa is coming to a supermarket near you

British-grown quinoa is coming to a supermarket near you
Tess Riley

A pioneering British farmer has sold his quinoa crop to Pret a Manger and is part of a network of European ‘Facebook farmers’ committed to growing the South American superfood locally
Quinoa

There was nothing remarkable about the cold, grey, winter’s day back in 2005 when Steve Jones first read about quinoa. As a local magazine extolled the health benefits of the hard-to-pronounce crop, the British student mentally added some to his next food shop and thought nothing more of it that day. Little did he realise that he had just taken his first step to becoming one of a handful of pioneering farmers bringing the South American super food to farms across western Europe.

“When I tried quinoa for the first time, it tasted great,” says Jones, “that was really the start of it all. I was studying agriculture at the time and my parents ran our family arable farm. Aware that there was no British quinoa available to buy back then, I decided to give it a go myself.”

The beginning of a quinoa adventure

Through trial and error, Jones soon discovered that the varieties of quinoa found in UK supermarkets - those that thrive in South America - are a no go in UK climates. Other varieties he tried produced a quinoa crop - “which was a start” - but not of a high enough quality to sell. Undeterred by this initial lack of success, however, Jones kept experimenting.

The breakthrough came in 2010 when Jones got in touch with Wageningen University in The Netherlands. Since 1990, scientists there have been using conventional breeding methods to develop new quinoa varieties suitable for cultivation in Europe – varieties that Jones then began trialling on his family’s farm while studying for a PhD in plant pathology at the University of Nottingham.

Today Jones holds the exclusive UK rights to the quinoa varieties his Wageningen colleagues have developed, enabling him not only to grow quinoa commercially but also to expand his business, the British Quinoa Company, by working with other UK growers to produce quinoa crops for him using his varieties.

“It’s not that common for a family farm to hold the rights to a crop variety. However, since it is such a niche crop, we were very lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” says Jones.

“To date we’ve sold our whole crop to Pret A Manger, but with more UK farmers now growing quinoa for us, we’re able to expand our business into retail too.

“Soon we hope to be able to support smaller-scale UK farmers even further by providing UK customers with local quinoa grown in their own region to ensure very low food miles.”

Farmers who Facebook

In 2013, the British quinoa farmer won first place in the University of Nottingham’s annual Student Venture Challenge, and less than a month ago he was presented with the Arable Innovator of the Year award at the British Farming Awards.

What Jones is equally if not more proud of though is the network of European farmers he now belongs to thanks to his relationship with Wageningen University.

“There are currently five of us with partners based in France, the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium - as well as me of course.

“We mainly stay in touch by Facebook, but we also have annual visits to one another’s farms to pool research, discuss how to improve our production processes and, of course, share our quinoa over the host’s dinner table. It’s like a big family event.”

The result? Each farmer has the exclusive license in their country for the varieties bred by Wageningen, but they are happy to co-operate with one another and committed to helping each other out.

With backgrounds in asparagus, sugar beet, peas, carrot, dairy and wheat farming, as well as veterinary medicine and agricultural economy, these farmers have a lot to bring to the mix, not to mention ambitious plans for the coming years. For eaxmple, Jost Gandenberger in Germany, is concentrating on producing organic quinoa to sell to bakeries, while Rens Kuijten of the Dutch Quinoa Group is preparing to introduce a Dutch quinoa brand to his home country in 2015.

Hyperlocal superfoods

Quinoa has traditionally had its fair share of good and bad press. Lauded for its high protein and impressive amino acid content, the grain-like seed has wowed meat and non-meat eaters alike. The sharp rise in demand for the crop in the West, however, has led to a tripling of world quinoa prices, in turn triggering significant problems in the traditional producing regions of Peru and Bolivia, including malnutrition and land disputes.

Increasing quinoa production across Europe is therefore intended to help meet European demand while developing new markets, stabilising world prices in the process. Jones intends to take this a step further by recruiting growers in multiple counties across the UK in order to develop a hyper-local product for each.

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