Beyond Bread: How To Save A Grain
Updated: Dec 21, 2021
Wheat is grown on more land than any other commercial crop. It originates from the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East and was one of the world’s first crops brought into cultivation. Rich in carbohydrates, protein, vitamin B, and calcium, it has been part of the human diet since ancient times having been domesticated by humans for the last 10,000 years. The domestication of wheat has made it easier to farm. Wild wheats can be more difficult to thresh (the process of loosening the edible part of grain from its straw), therefore over time, people have sought to modify the traits of wheat plants, creating domestic wheat that can be harvested more easily.
In 2020, the UK alone produced 9.7 million tonnes, down from 16.2 million tonnes the prior year. But who chooses which wheat varieties to breed, and how? And what happens when a grain stops getting selected by someone with the power to bring it to market?
Characteristics that are selected for include crop yield, the time it takes for the crop to mature, the height that the wheat grows to, and whether the variety is resistant to pests and diseases. As a cool season crop, wheat is incredibly vulnerable to climate change, which is why it is important to develop varieties that can adapt to changing conditions. And as the global population balloons, crop yield is becoming especially crucial, as we must feed more people with the same land area.
The breeding and selection process to bring a new grain to commercial production can take more than a decade, and naturally not all wheat varieties will make the cut with plant breeders. When a strain is at risk of becoming extinct, it can take a group effort to bring it back into production. For example, in Israel a flour mill is working closely with scientists on the Land of Wheat project, an initiative to revive heirloom wheat varieties which haven’t been farmed in local fields for many years. The wheats were milled to create whole-wheat flour, and a bread was made with each of them, to be tasted alongside a bread made with a modern commercial flour.
In some cases, a wheat variety won’t be a winner for the purpose that it was bred for, but it will be ideal for something else. That’s what happened with Antero wheat, bred at the wheat quality lab at the Colorado State University College of Agricultural Sciences. The variety that wound up not being suited to baking bread had a renaissance as a malt in the hands of craft beverage producers.
Chris Schooley runs a craft malthouse (malting involves steeping, germinating, and kilning/ roasting grain) called Troubadour Maltings in Fort Collins, CO. He says that it was always his intention to explore options for how the malthouse and the university could work together. “We knew that was a big win for us, to be able to open an agricultural operation like this, right down the road from a school full of young, excited minds.” Chris explains that the wheat quality lab mostly breeds wheat for flour, but after trailing a few different varieties for malting, he was able to find one variety that was perfect for his customers in the brewing and distilling industries. “The first time we malted and kilned it, as soon as the kiln was finished and we opened up the kiln, it just smelled like frosted flakes,” says Chris.
He explains that it has a different protein profile from the other wheat varieties that the lab was developing, which made it more suitable for brewing than for bread. “It didn’t make big fluffy loaves of bread, but that’s why it made an awesome brewer’s wheat,” he says, explaining that it was going to get thrown away and discontinued. Thankfully, the original seed was still available, and Chris was able to save it by working with a local farm that was already working with the university as a seed grower. “It’s a huge win agronomically,” he says. “It grows perfectly here in Colorado. It has record setting yields, it’s low water usage, low input usage, has a low profile to the ground so it won’t get knocked over by wind.”
Chris’s story shows the benefit of preserving crop diversity, but not every grain that is rejected by one cultivator will be saved by another entity right away. Luckily, seed banks (sometimes called gene banks) can help to prevent genetic diversity from dwindling away for good. These places are temperature-controlled repositories for seeds and plant cuttings, with staff responsible for recording and storing them for potential future use. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the world's largest, located beyond the Arctic Circle in the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. It has the capacity to store 4.5 million varieties, and currently houses samples originating from almost every country in the world. “In an age of heightened geopolitical tensions and uncertainty, the Svalbard vault is an unusual and hopeful exercise in international cooperation for the good of humankind,” writes Jennifer Duggan for Time. “Any organisation or country can send seeds to it, and there are no restrictions because of politics or the requirements of diplomacy.”
The rate at which some countries are losing crop diversity can be alarming. Take China, for example, where a push towards efficiency has led a small selection of crops to dominate the country’s output. According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the country saw a 90% decline in wheat varieties in the space of a few decades. Of 10,000 varieties used in 1949, only around 1,000 remained in the 1970s. Now, the Chinese government is strengthening its system of gene banks, but small community seed banks have operating challenges, and there is a risk that institutional knowledge won’t be adequately preserved.
Losing seeds for good doesn’t just mean that we have less variety today. It could also mean that we have limited crops available in the future when climate conditions may demand different characteristics. Maintaining biodiversity will give us the best chance of a bright future for crop harvests. To do this, it is critical to support the people that breed new grains – as well as preserving current and ancient grains; those that grow them, and the researchers who catalogue and preserve seeds that just could make the perfect crop for a future farmer.
Hollie is a freelance writer and drinks nerd. She has contributed to publications such as Ferment, Pellicle, VinePair, and more. She is originally from London and currently lives in New Mexico. @GlobeHops