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Adding Value to Holy Grain: Providing the Key Tools for the Exploitation of Amaranth the Protein-Rich Grain of the Aztecs

Final Report Summary - AMARANTH:FUTURE-FOOD (Adding Value to Holy Grain: Providing the Key Tools for the Exploitation of Amaranth the Protein-Rich Grain of the Aztecs)

The effects of food on human health are central issues both in Europe and in Latin America. Malnourished children and adults living in rural areas need much better access to protein-rich food supply. Amaranth grains and leaves are protein-rich and have a good balance of essential amino acids. Amaranth is a C4 plant, resistant to drought and heat. Strong efforts have been done by for instance FAO, in retrieving and disseminating the knowledge of amaranth cultivation However, a range of still not solved problems for the sustainable use of amaranth exist.

Modern technologies have become available to researchers both in Europe and Latin America. With these tools the properties of amaranth species can now be elucidated with the purpose of targeted breeding of new varieties and thus improving the basis for amaranth cultivation and exploitation for achieving food security and for industrialised exploitation.

The project AMARANTH: FUTURE-FOOD (see http://www.amaranth-future-food.net online) was a joint research project financed by the European Commission in the Specific International Cooperation Activities (INCO) of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). The project group consisted of 11 partners from Mexico, Nicaragua, Argentina, the Czech Republic, Spain and Denmark. Amaranth is a protein-rich and gluten-free pseudo-cereal grain that was the basic food in South America and Mexico thousands of years ago. Some 60 to 70 Amaranthus species are known. The overall objective of the project was to provide the tools for an extensive and sustainable exploitation of amaranth. The project began on 1 September 2006 and ended on 31 December 2009.

The results showed great opportunities of using amaranth as a plant for grain and leaf production for different industries. There are potential huge market perspectives in each tested industry. The composition of amaranth oil with the most important nutrient, squalene, should be sold as a nutrient raw material to the pharmaceutical industry (in vegetarian capsules), also to the cosmetic industry for different products for hair and body cosmetics. Extraction of squalene from amaranth oil is costly, and it is not necessary; amaranth oil works well in consistence as a whole.

Amaranth plants should be grown for leaves for consumption and also as feed for animals. There is a possibility to use it also for the energy industry, but it shows more potential as a source of food and feed for humans and animals, respectively, than to combust it as a source of power. The presented results showed a good point for future investigations for improvement of amaranth as an available crop with commercial potential.

The results of the field trials demonstrate that amaranth can be cultivated in a wide variety of agronomic scenarios. Indeed, it was possible to produce amaranth under very different soil and climate conditions, as demonstrated by the field trials. This is not surprising since amaranth is a genus of invasive plants.

The field trials are expected to have substantial impact in the research on cultivation of amaranth, since there are no other studies comparing the agronomic performance of such a wide number of genotypes exposed to such an ample range of field conditions. The statistical evaluation of our results demonstrate that the amaranth culture is flexible enough for being feasible in many different environmental and climatic conditions, but also that more research in the area will be required.

We demonstrated that genetic improvement of amaranth varieties is possible and that some important traits for commercial exploitation of amaranth (such as plant height and inflorescence length) can respond well to breeding programmes. All in all, it is our expectation that the result of the field trials will serve as a basis for further research in the area.

The dissemination of the results of the study is on-going. Governmental and non-governmental organisations that work with food security and nutrition are involved, as well as national scientific committees who are making their presence known throughout Nicaragua. With these organisations, no formal plan or contract has been established due to lack of funding from all sides. The best way to spread the information is to go to rural areas and work with their local organisations to promote amaranth as a crop, highlighting the agronomic potential and nutritional content compared to the other grains currently cultivated (corn, beans, sorghum and wheat).

It is also important to highlight the different ways that amaranth can be used in daily food preparation; there are at least 18 different ways to incorporate it. To carry out these training sessions, materials such as seeds and informational pamphlets would be crucial.

Verbal contact is maintained with:
- PROMIPAC (integrated disease management programme in Latin America);
- FUNICA (foundation for the development of agriculture and livestock as well as forest technology in Nicaragua);
- CLUSA (association of leagues of cooperatives);
- SAVE THE CHILDREN,
-EL INTA (Nicaraguan institution of agriculture and livestock technology);
- FODEL (federation of NGOs for the local development in Nicaragua: a group of private producers interested in planting for cattle feeding purposes).

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