It has been hailed as a super food, a nutrient-packed, gluten-free dish that even carb counters can get behind. But could quinoa feed a hungry planet? That's the hope behind a new effort by scientists who've unlocked the humble grain's genome. "Quinoa has great potential to enhance global food security," lead researcher Mark Tester tells the Guardian. Because the plant has a high tolerance for salt, the BBC notes it can be grown in lower-quality soil such as that in Saudi Arabia, where the team is based. The problem with mass-producing quinoa is that the ancient staple—grown mostly in a few countries high in the Andes mountains—is time-consuming to get from the field to the table. Plus, the fragile plant's small heads and long stalks make it vulnerable to high winds and rain.
Writing in the journal Nature, researchers identified genes that could be tweaked, such as those that control the production of saponins, which give quinoa a bitter, toxic coating unless washed away—a tedious process. The discovery is "an important first step" to producing a heartier form of quinoa, they write. Tester tells the BBC that new varieties of seeds adapted to various conditions will help make quinoa "a designer plant." A favorite of foodies, the price of quinoa has skyrocketed in recent years as demand has increased. The US imported 70 million pounds in 2013, up from 7 million six years earlier, per Quartz. But production has remained mostly flat. Increased production would drive down the price, which Tester said needs to drop by five times to make quinoa a contender to boost the world's food supply. (A food trend to watch in 2017: quinoa pasta.)