All About Wheat: From a Simple Grass to a Staple Product

From Wild Grass to a Staple Product 

As we have discussed in our History of Farming series, humans began cultivating crops thousands of years ago. Wheat was among the first of these crops to be strategically grown. However, in the same way, that we have influenced the genetic expression of these plants (e.g. giving us bigger yields), their cultivation has left an everlasting mark on our society. 

Wheat is a rather picky crop, demanding specific conditions in order to grow and prosper. Even though wheat came about naturally, the proper soil and environmental conditions required are not reliably found everywhere. This required the early farmers to adopt cultivating strategies that we still use today, such as removing weeds, improve irrigation, and even fertilization. With limited equipment, this physically demanding work to ensure the wheat wellbeing left a toll on the farmers. Fossil records of the early farmers show that such work leads to a broad range of health problems such as arthritis and slipped disks. For the emerging societies, this too brought about great change. Tending to the wheat plans was all-encompassing, and hence regularly moving and leaving behind their cultivations was not an option. Humans decided to create lasting settlements next to their fields. 

Wheat Today

What once was a simple grass has now become a mightly crop. Today, wheat plants can be found across the globe and are the second most popular crop after maize and rice. Annually covering ca 250 million hectares of land, wheat is eaten by 2.5 billion people across 89 countries with many different varieties available. 

The Worlds Favorite Wheat

Due to the varying climate conditions, different countries or regions prefer to grow different kinds of wheat. This is is important, as the climate dictates when a regional growing and harvesting season is. 

France is the biggest wheat producer in Europe, with an annual output of ca 47 million tonnes. Here winter wheat is the main kind of wheat cultivated. Winter wheat is generally in October and is ready for harvest in August the year after. With about 126 million metric tons produced per year, China is the biggest wheat producer in the world. Through China also grows spring wheat (planted in early spring and harvested in late summer) winter wheat is produced in much larger quantities. Similar trends are found in India and Russia who are the second and third-biggest wheat producers. They too prefer to cultivate winter wheat. Why? Let’s take China as an example. For Chinese farmers, one great advantage of growing winter wheat is that it matures earlier. This gives them time to also cultivate other crops such as vegetables. Unlike spring wheat, it has also been found that winter wheat is less likely to undergo so-called preharvest sprouting. Pre-harvest sprouting is when the grains of e.g. wheat plant start to sprout on the mother plant before the farmer has had the chance to harvest. It is a serious issue as it makes the grains unusable. 

Harvesting

How wheat is harvested can have some slight variations depending on where in the world you find yourself. In most European countries, farmers use modern machinery that has been created specifically for the harvest of grains (such as wheat). Here, the so-called Combine-Harvester steals the show, and rightfully so. It is a versatile machine that automates the majority of the harvesting process. As the farmer drives the Combine-Harvester across the field the machine cuts the straws and separates the grains from it. The grains are then saved in a specialized tank in the harvester while the straws are chopped and pushed back out into the field. 

In other parts of the world where access to modern agricultural machinery is limited, the harvesting process is still mostly manual. Here farmers often use a sickle to cut the straws. Separating the berries from the straws is also done manually. Here the berries are knocked off the straw, raked, and sieved to ensure no small leaves or straw pieces are left. 

Yields

The global average production of wheat today lies at ca 3546.8 kg/ha and is 118,33 % greater than it was 50 years ago in 1970 (ca 1624 kg/ha). One factor that we can attribute the general increase of wheat production to (which dates back much longer than the 1970s) is the makeup of the grain itself. Much like the first farmers noticed, targeted selection allows us to produce grains with beneficial traits, with yield size being a focal point. Compared to the modern strains we use today, the ancient or historical grains result in lower yields and are much more vulnerable to pests and diseases. However, from a cultural perspective, limited cultivation for the purposes of producing traditional dishes may still have a valuable contribution to society. 

When comparing ancient and modern wheat, gluten is an unavoidable topic and has in recent years received a very negative image. As summarized in a review by Harvard University, there is no empirical research that has found support for gluten being a harmful component in our diet, unless one suffers from an underlying condition such as Non-celiac Gluten Sensitivity, Wheat Allergy or Dermatitis herpetiformis (DH). In fact, Harvard University also mentions that gluten may have an important function in our guts as it has been found to stimulate the activity of so-called bifidobacteria in the colon which is present in healthy guts. Without these, individuals may come to suffer from gastrointestinal diseases such as bowel disease and colorectal cancer. 

So even though our daily food may not comprise of the traditional cuisine of our ancestors, we can sit back and relax as we enjoy some of our most favourite foods. Whether it is a flaky croissant, chewy sourdough bread, or crunchy homemade pizza, these would not be the same without wheat and gluten. 

Diseases

Pre-harvest sprouting is not the only problem that a wheat farmer may come across. There are many diseases that wheat plants can suffer from (e.g. brown rust, fusarium ear blight, mildew, yellow rust) and have a big impact on harvest loss. 

When it comes to disease management and its prevention, time is the farmer’s best friend. Being able to quickly detect the onset of diseases is key to save the harvest, however, detecting them on time is difficult to do manually. Precision agriculture has a lot to offers in this regard. Making use of Vegetation Indices (IVs), diseases can be detected early. This gives the farmer the time needed to take the required action to prevent the spread of the disease and saves the crops. However, there is more to yield size than disease management or whether a modern kind of wheat is grown. 

As we mentioned, wheat is a little pickier than a lot of other crops. Farmers have to keep tabs on numerous factors throughout the growing season, to ensure the plants grow properly. Soil health, sufficient and timely plant grow and irrigation is key and needs to continuously be monitored. However, one of the most impactful yet is fertilization. This is traditionally utterly labour-intensive and time-consuming. Yet, precision agriculture can improve even this aspect of cultivation. Using similar techniques and various Vegetation Indices alike what is used for disease detection, farmers can get detailed information about their fields directly to their phones and tablets. Taking fertilization as an example, farmers can receive precise recommendations on how much fertilizer each area of the field requires. Better yet, the fertilizer output is automatically varied by the machinery itself. This does not only make it easier and saves the farmer valuable time, but costs as well. 

Found in pantries across the world wheat has had an astounding impact on how we humans live our lives. Though its cultivation may be demanding, the products we are able to make and the millions of lives it nourishes surely make it work the effort!

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