May 16, 2017

16/05/2017: Wheat - The ancient and future crop

Wheat plays a crucial part in the everyday life of billions of people around the globe. 

The cereal is farmed extensively, with yearly production surpassing the high yields of rice. Annual figures for wheat are around 750 million tonnes, cultivated on more than 540 million acres, and that trend is set to increase exponentially as the human population is forecast to rise in the very near future.

Historically, wheat has been part of human culture since the earliest era. References to the grain have been found in ancient Chinese writings and Biblical scripture. Socrates is quoted as saying, “No man qualifies as a statesman who is entirely ignorant on the problems of wheat.” He was of course speaking about the political direction of the period, but it shows what a key cultural influence this grain had to civilization.

Cultivation of wheat began over 10,000 years ago in what James Henry Breasted coined the, "Fertile Crescent' also known as the cradle of civilization, or more commonly, Mesopotamia. Along with Einkorn wheat, Emmer was one of the first crops to be domesticated and actively farmed. As humanity spread through migration and trade, the cultivation of Emmer reached Greece, Cyprus and India by 6500 BCE. Egypt followed shortly after 6000 BCE, and Germany and Spain were introduced to wheat by 5000 BCE. By 3000 BCE, the grain had reached the British Isles and Scandinavia. A millennium later it reached China. From Asia, wheat continued to spread throughout Europe. In the British Isles, the wheat stalks were dried, creating straw and used as thatching for Bronze Age roofing until the late 19th century. 

Wheat is part of the Triticum genus of grasses, and has a very complex genome. To give some indication of this, wheat diversifies into diploid, tetraploid and hexaploid groups, all of which can separate into three more distinct genomes within the cell nucleus. By comparison, each of these genomes is almost twice as complex as the human genome and consists of around 5,500 million letters.

Today, the major cultivated species is, ‘T.aestivum' which is known as Common wheat. Durum, Hard Red Spring and Hard or Soft Winter variants are the next most popular strains. There have been successful efforts to genetically alter the DNA of wheat with a view to improving yields and making it more resistant to disease or loss. One such process is dwarfing, which has been used to prevent spoilage. Researchers found that when grain is almost ripe, the heavy ears overcome the natural strength of the grass stem and it bends to come in contact with the wet ground, thus rendering it un-harvestable.

Read more HERE.

The Global Miller
This blog is maintained by The Global Miller staff and is supported by the magazine Milling and Grain
which is published by Perendale Publishers Limited.

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