`Lost' Incan Foods Deserve Attention


AT this season of trick or treat, how about a different kind of treat? How about beans that pop like popcorn or a dish of ice-cream fruit? These are two of the ``lost crops'' of the Incas that the United States National Academy of Sciences urges the world's agronomists to consider. Still cultivated in the Andean lands that gave us potatoes, tomatoes, and peanuts, they could add nutritious variety to the world's foods.

These foods are ``lost'' only in the sense of being little known beyond the markets of Andean Indians, who still grow the crops that fed the Inca empire. Some, such as cherimoya, are beginning to make their way in the larger world. That's the fruit with the bumpy green skin that Mark Twain called ``deliciousness itself.'' Served chilled, it has won the nickname ``ice-cream fruit.'' Other Andean treasures, such as the popping bean, await wider appreciation.

The academy experts feel it is time that agricultural scientists took this resource seriously. So, working through its executive agency, the National Research Council, it has issued a report outlining the qualities of several dozen Andean root, fruit, nut, and vegetable crops that the academy panel on ``Lost Crops of the Incas'' thinks deserve attention.

Many of the crops are preadapted to a variety of climates since they grow at various heights in the mountains. Although the land's latitude may be tropical, the actual climate may be temperate. The main difficulty is that the seasonal timing and length of day is still tropical.

Hugh Popenoe, a University of Florida agronomist and chairman of the academy panel, notes that, in working with several of these Inca crops on his own farm, they grow well but flower at the wrong time. This is the kind of problem that plant breeding and genetic engineering probably can solve. Dr. Popenoe says that ``one of the reasons we think this book is so important is that it will attract the attention of scientists to some of these crops and ... they can start working on them with biotechnology and some of our new strategies for improving crops in a hurry.''

A major advantage of many of these ``lost'' foods is their high nutritional value. Often that means rich in protein. Popenoe's favorite is the pop bean. This doesn't bounce as vigorously as popcorn, so you can easily pop it in a skillet. He says that, a decade from now, ``I can see children in many parts of the world being admonished by their parents not to eat so much popcorn because it's just boiled starch. [They'll say] `Here, eat these pop beans. They're much higher in protein and much better for you.'''

Popenoe's committee believes that the world is ready for wide-scale development of at least some of the neglected Inca crops. A previous National Research Council book called attention to amaranth, when some members of that edible family seemed ready for exploitation. Modern agronomic techniques improved its production so farmers now grow it throughout the world. Thus, the report on Inca foods could become another landmark document in global agriculture.

We all would be gainers. There are, for example, other nutritious tubers besides potatoes. There are protein-rich grains such as quinoa now grown in Colorado and sold in some specialty food stores. You can pop this food product too. There are also the pods of a pacay plant, with pulp so smooth and sweet it's called the ``ice cream'' bean. Now that would be a treat.

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