A prehistoric Appalachian seed plant looks promising as a local food and revenue source

On Friday, Feb. 12, 2016, Ohio University’s Dr. Paul Patton kicked off the spring semester CE3 Brownbag Lunch Series, co-hosted by the Voinovich School‘s Consortium for Energy, Economics and the Environment (CE3) and the Environmental Studies Program, with his presentation on Chenopodium berlandieri.

Paul Patton brownbag action

The plant, more commonly known as “pitseed goosefoot,” has thousands of years of history in Appalachian Ohio. Dr. Patton, director of the Field School in Ohio Archeology at Ohio University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and a graduate of the Master of Science in Environmental Studies (MSES) at the Voinovich School, has extensively researched the Chenopodium berlandieri as an archaeobotanist based in the Hocking River Valley. His research directly contributes to the Food Studies Theme in the College of Arts & Sciences, and to the larger body of research at Ohio University and CE3 related to food, energy, water and waste.

“My research has kind of focused around this one plant—Chenopodium berlandieriand that’s simply because it keeps popping up on every excavation I’ve worked on,” Dr. Patton said to the group of University faculty, staff, and students in attendance at Friday’s luncheon. “It proves to be a pretty significant and important plant, with respect to Native American populations here in this region, [and] also in populations in Mexico and parts of Central America.”

This “obnoxious” weed-like species and its subsequent seeds are actually closely related to the quinoa crop, now a popular protein-rich seed varietal across much of the world. The United Nations declared 2013 to be the“International Year of Quinoa,” and the price for a pound of quinoa has since skyrocketed. Touted for its protein and micronutrient-rich qualities, quinoa has become a sought-after addition to the new American diet.

“We’re talking close to 70 million pounds per year of quinoa being brought into the United States, and that number continues to go up,” Dr. Patton said, citing 2013 U.S. import statistics. “The price for this particular grain just keeps going up… This food itself is basically a financial success.”

But Chenopodium berlandieri does a little better. After calculating the nutritional content for the seed to prove that native populations could, in fact, subsist on this food source, Dr. Patton and his colleagues found that the local “Cheno” seed outperforms quinoa on protein, and has less fat and carbohydrate content than maize (corn) and quinoa, as well. In short, this seed, which Patton said tastes similarly to quinoa, has the potential to revolutionize the nutrient-deficient pockets of Appalachia, while also providing a potentially significant source of income for poverty-stricken communities in southeast Ohio.

“We all know this fact, that our region is hit and struggling with issues of poverty, with issues of food security, with food access—Athens County being one of the worst counties in the State of Ohio with respect to access of food—so we’ve got some major issues,” Dr. Patton said. “But we also have a whole host of old farmsteads that are sitting around and not being utilized.”

Dr. Patton’s hope, with his research, is to expand the farming and cultivation of the well-adaptedChenopodium berlandieri plant in the Hocking River Valley region for the benefit of rural-county Ohioans. Currently, there are no local U.S. communities producing the Chenopodium berlandieri plant for modern cultivation: only in Mexico.

“This particular plant, which is really well adapted to this area, which has an extremely long history here (of growth and of feeding people), potentially could be at least a partial solution to the issue of regional food insecurity, while simultaneously giving people better nutrition than they’re getting from some of our other sources of food,” Dr. Patton said. “There’s a lot of opportunity, I think, here for this particular plant.”

The CE3 Brownbag Lunch Series has additional speaker dates set for the spring. The next session will be Friday, Feb. 26 at noon with Dr. Derek Kauneckis, associate professor at the Voinovich School. For the full schedule, please visit: https://www.ohio.edu/ce3/news-events/events.cfm.

This post also appears on Ohio University’s CE3 portal