Environment Plants and Animals

Is Ancient Wheat the Future of Food?

ancient wheat

Researchers believe that there is a wide range of consumer markets that have remained untapped in regards to ancient foods. These foods include einkorn, emmer and spelt which fed large amounts of the world’s population for thousands of years and fell of the map almost completely as a result of the rise of industrial farming and the green revolution.

Two plant breeders published their opinion in the June 27th publication of Trends in Plant Science journal. In the paper they explain that consumer demand in the United States and Europe for high-quality, healthy food specialties presents a great opportunity to reintroduce ancient wheat varieties and other plant species by creating what they are calling “farm to fork” supply chains that satisfy the demands of consumers, providing niche markets for small farmers, millers, and bakers, with an increase in agricultural biodiversity.

Friedrich Longin, co-author of the paper says people are interested in diversity. They want to get something more with what they taste, they want healthier ingredients and ancient grains deliver very interesting variations. Longin, along with Tobias Würschum from the University of Hohenheim in Germany say that consumer preferences in the US and Europe are driven more by their desire for novel products and healthier ingredients than they are by low prices. This opens up a market that ancient wheat species can completely fulfill. The team believes that by testing and analyzing some of the thousands of varieties found in gene banks, agronomists and cereal scientists can select those best suited to both modern farming needs and consumer preferences.

Multi-grain breads and baked goods which have ingredients such as oats, barley and millet are available on a wide scale. However, the wheat flour in them comes almost exclusively from bread wheat, just one of the three species, 20 subspecies and thousands of varieties of wheat cultivated and consumed across the globe for thousands of years. During the development of the industrial agriculture and the green revolution in the mid-twentieth century, much focus was placed on developing cultivars that produce a high yield and have short stalks which are less likely to collapse in the field and expose the grains to pests and mold. Different varieties ceased to be commercially viable, and as they fell out of favor, traditional dishes and regional food diversity also started to disappear.

Video showing wheat production chain.

Many of such varieties are still present in gene banks all over the world and scientists view them as an important source of genetic diversity. Longin and Würschum say a multidisciplinary step-wise but holistic approach that looks at both agronomic properties like disease tolerance and yield potential as well as nutritional and taste profiles is needed in order to select the best solutions to reintroduce into the market.

During their research, hundreds of varieties of einkorn and emmer were tested and the 15 best candidates at were then tested at four different Germany locations. The results showed the importance of looking at these plants holistically. Longin says when you look at einkorn, it is really fantastic looking in the field, but when you get the agronomic performance, it is low yielding and it falls down in the rain. But then we found there were so many healthy ingredients, and you taste and even see it in the end result.

The team also pointed towards the sizable and growing market for spelt products as a great example of how ancient grains can be successfully reintroduced in modern markets. Spelt was the main cereal crop in Southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland up until the early 20th century when it almost completely disappeared. Its rediscovery began in the 1970s and only a few millers and bakers were still familiar with traditional spelt recipes. Today more than 100,000 hectares of spelt are grown annually in and around Germany with an annual growth rate of more than 5% and an annual turnover of €1 billion across Europe.

Longin and Würschum believe that in order to reintroduce other ancient grain varieties successfully, interdisciplinary cooperation all along the supply chain from plant breeding to nutritional analysis to marketing is required. They think the end results can create a self-financing strategy for providing high-quality foods and preserving ancient recipes. Login says it would be worthwhile to look a bit more in the gene banks at what diversity is sleeping there that has been forgotten by the industry.

  • jim b

    nothing ancient about wheat, its still plentiful in my area