Amaranth, along with other previously disregarded or banned food staples used by indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica, is receiving increased attention from policy makers, agronomists and nutritionists alike. Amidst global discussions on food security and climate change mitigation, this “never-fading flower”(as its Greek-derived botanical name refers to) is making a persistent re-entry into gastronomic, cultural and political arenas.
In addition to its tangible benefits, the story of amaranth also serves as a metaphor for indigenous peoples’ path towards self-determination. Historically thwarted by Christian missionaries and deemed as a noxious weed by many of today’s farmers, amaranth’s colorful ability to resist, resurface, and thrive – in varied ecological niches – mirrors the tenacity of indigenous peoples to flourish in their diverse and respective bio-cultural regions, despite generations of persecution.
Referred to as huautli in Nahuatl, amaranth is a tall plant used for its spinach-like leaves and for the grain at the center of its stalk, both of which are edible and highly nutritious. Archaeological findings in Mexico show that it was cultivated over 6000 years ago. Current interest in amaranth, however, sheds little light on the historical geopolitical conflict that its cultivation ensued. As fully as amaranth was appreciated by indigenous populations, it was equally as reviled by Spaniards as one of the foods they associated with pagan practices. When colonizers began their often-forceful conversion of local inhabitants to Christianity, one of the first things they did was to outlaw foods involved in indigenous religious festivals (manataka.org). Fortunately, huatli was not eradicated, as subtler versions of its cultivation, gastronomic and ceremonial practices were continued by indigenous communities throughout Mesoamerica. Today, it is increasingly viewed as a potential antidote to food insecurity and climate change based on the fact that it is easily harvested (the grains grow rapidly and its seed heads can contain up to a half-million seeds), is an excellent source of protein (the seeds contain about thirty percent more protein than cereals like rice, sorghum and rye) and is easy to cook.
A more recent twist in the story of amaranth is that in addition to its nutritional benefits, huatli has apparently learned to outsmart genetically modified organism (GMO) manipulation. Beginning in 2004, unbeknownst to the general public, US farmers in several southern states began noticing that some amaranth seedlings were resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup Ready, a chemical herbicide they were applying to their soybean plants. Nearly a decade later, this persistent trait of amaranth is viewed with growing concern by the agrochemical industry because farmers can no longer “rely” upon and are, therefore, not dependent upon Monsanto products to safeguard their crops. For anti GMO’s proponents, amaranth’s trick on science is perceived as a mini victory in the otherwise overwhelming battle against GMO expansionism.
“Amaranth is a kind of boomerang returned by nature to Monsanto,” says Sylvie Simon (undergroundhealth.com, 2013). “It neutralizes the predator and settles in places where it can feed humanity in times of famine.” Wild amaranth comes back without being planted and grows well in a variety of climates. Its ‘never fading’ aspect, therefore, refers not only to the flower — which keeps its deep reddish or rust color for a long time — but also to the sheer tenacity of the plant itself (unu.edu, 2013).
Similarly, indigenous nations and their respective paths towards self-determination can be described as never-fading flowers; endowed not only with tremendous bio-cultural vibrancy but also with a tenacity and ability to resist the myriad of corporate, political, and epistemological forces that have sought to annihilate them. Their irrepressibility should be celebrated and politically recognized in domestic and international arenas – not as historical relics, but rather as contemporary protagonists in the food security/climate change mitigation narrative.