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Heritage wheats...what's it all about?

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Recently a food writer in The Times referred to “rarity obsessed foodies”. I wondered what he meant, but soon realised it was just cantankerous writing and he was referring to the conservation and celebration of heritage varieties which is  becoming a mainstream consideration in the last few years, and its interesting to plot the course of this movement, especially as it relates to Wheat.

The Green Revolution.

The seminal event which sparked all of this was the “Green revolution” of the 1960`s. It seemed that world population was outstripping the food supply and something had to be done to relieve the shortages which were becoming serious in the “3rd world”. To this end, the scientist Norman Bourlag began to transfer genetic material between wheat varieties in an attempt to create higher-yielding crops. He inserted the genes of a dwarf variety of wheat from Manchuria into the “regular wheat” genome. This created a dwarf strain which carried  high yielding traits. The idea was that instead of the plant using its energy in stem growth, the short stems would enable the energy to be transferred to the grain, thus increasing yield. The traditional strains of Wheat almost universally grow to  a metre and a half , with many being much taller. Apart from the energy investment, this also made wheat subject to “lodging”, which means the grain can fall over immediately before harvest time and become difficult to harvest. But the most significant fact of Bourlags work was that the new hybridised strains of wheat yielded twice as much grain. This was firstly trialled in vivo in the Punjab India, and within years India became self –sufficient in Wheat, after almost being in crisis with famine.

Good taste ...good food.

The technology was rapidly transferred to Rice, and the green revolution was underway with hunger being alleviated around the “ 3rd world”. The green revolution seemed a major success, but even then, nobody in the scientific community listened to the locals. The very first complaints came within a few years and they were all about the taste. The new Rice tasted awful. Bourlag hadn’t considered the taste and that he was dealing with a food crop which had been selected for millennia for culinary reasons…this was food, not an abstract entity. Eventhough it seems unreal to quibble as thousands were freed from starvation, nevertheless “taste” doesn’t simply mean that it was good to eat…this is important as edibility of a foodstuff has to be a major consideration, but “taste” means more. The major bio-chemicals which transfer edibility to a food are also those which we now know are hugely functional in “health”. The taste chemicals are composed of minerals and bioflavenoids and phyto chemicals which have been shown to have a therapeutic function. The taste difference between my fathers home grown tomatoes and the bland things from the store were not lost on me even as a 12 year old…. its not simply the preserve of “foodies”, and does have intrinsic “meaning”. It is  a reflection of the entire terroir of a food and the health of the plant concerned.

I've tasted some of this revolutionary rice and indeed it is awful, bland and relatively flavourless, with notes of cardboard and wood. It doesn’t cook as well either, with the grains not having the same texture and mouthfeel of traditional types. Some of the traditional rices I've eaten in Asia are so delicious as to demand more, and don’t harbour the tedium one expects from eating large amounts of Rice, a cereal with which I'm not culturally used to eating as a staple. Within  a few years, hundreds of varieties of Rice, maintained for millennia had disappeared. As we now realise this is a huge loss of genetic material which is invaluable to world food supply. These types are called “landraces”, which means they have sufficient genetic diversity to adapt to regional growing conditions and can often withstand seasonal variations. They have resulted from largely natural processes of selection and adaption, are genetically heterogeneous, and from another perspective contain the spirit of the land, the essence of “terroir” also embodied(literally) in the people who grow and consume them.

To have lost them is a crime, and not to have realised their place in the scheme of the biosphere is shortsighted and perhaps too typical of what we have come to expect from what should be called “scientism”, not really “Science”.

Silent spring.

The next major corollary is that the new wheats/Rices are totally dependant on relatively large amounts of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and insecticides. Their roots are less extensive and don’t glean the same nutrients from the soil as the older types, and seem to carry a diminished nutrient lode. This is particularly evident with some of the older Wheats which have higher protein scores than the improved types, and these proteins appear to be the easy to digest, water-soluble types. The farmers of 40 centuries quickly noticed that their Rice paddies, which had been an extensive mix of frogs, fish insects and birds in a symbiosis, were becoming empty of life, killed by the chemical inputs of the green revolution. This process goes on with the water table, rivers and the soil slowly becoming less bio-active. Of course the fertilisers insecticides and herbicides aren’t free…this is the preserve of the chemical corporations who grew on the coat-tails of the “revolution”. Also, the farmers couldn’t keep their seeds and grow as they always had. The seeds had to be purchased as well. Its beginning to sound like a benevolent conspiracy.

Tilth and tradition

Some interpret these perspectives as  whining of the affluent in a  western democracy, from someone who hasn’t tasted starvation and want. But today the complaints come strongly from places like the Punjab, where farmers are commiting suicide because they cant keep up the payments for the fertilisers, insecticides and herbicides. Farm land is becomming degraded as the traditional means of keeping the tilth simply aren’t being practiced anymore, and the health of the soil and the environment degrades. The old argument that the traditional varieties only yield half as much are negated by the bald truth that the new varieties only yield more because of the extensive chemical input. More sobering are reports again from the Punjab that cancer rates are rising and seem to be concentrated in chemical intensive village areas, birth defects are at unprecedented rates…all of which we in the affluent west are seeing in our own chemical- intensive environments.

“if the world shifted to heritage varieties, half the world would starve” my friend the heritage wheat farmer opined to me. The solution to rapidly rising populations and the finite nature of food production is way beyond the scope of this piece, and is indeed problematic, but Im simply presenting background to the movement, becoming much stronger, which seeks to preserve heritage grains. In future pieces, I will continue to chart the movement and examine its parameters….particularly interesting notions that a second green revolution may be difficult to achieve as we approach the photosynthetic limits of plants.

Added by: johndownes

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