Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Domesticating Wheat

 In describing the history of wheat, no one can guess the date when someone first bit off a bit of grain and ground it up with her molars.  Archeologists can estimate that humans began to cultivate wheat more than 9000 years ago, planting & growing it to feed themselves and the kids.  Those first Neolithic farmers started a relationship that has continued for ten centuries, during which wheat has changed a good deal.  It has evolved into a domesticated crop.
Wild Wheat in Turkey
Domestic Wheat at Maggie's Farm

WIKI says domestication is the process whereby a population of plants is changed at the genetic level through a process of selection, in order to accentuate traits that benefit humans.  Wheat is a good example.     Wild wheat matures over a period of time and falls to the ground to reseed itself when ripe, but domesticated wheat stays on the stem for easier harvesting. There is evidence that this critical change came about as a result of a random mutation near the beginning of wheat’s cultivation.  Wheat with this mutation was harvested and became the seed for the next crop. Therefore, without realizing, early farmers selected for this mutation, which would otherwise have died out. The result is domesticated wheat, which relies on farmers for its own reproduction and dissemination.
Seeding Oberkulmer Spelt 12/11/12
Turning the Oberkulmer Spelt seed under

An unsought repercussion of domestication is that modern wheat is unable to survive wild in competition with better adapted species.   

Early farmers picked the biggest seed heads, re-planted kernels that made the best bread, chose the plants that did well in the weather of that place.  Not caring whether their wheat could arm wrestle weeds into submission, our ancestors made it survival of the tastiest and easiest to gather.  Not survival of the fiercest.   

In the much more recent 1880s, John Bennet Lawes, an English landowner and early plant researcher, did an experiment to prove it.  He left part of his wheat crop unharvested, monitoring the growth over subsequent seasons.  Within three years, the abundant fields of wheat had dwindled to a few shrunken sheaves.  It couldn’t stand alone against the briars and pests.

When Lawes died in 1900, he left his 16th century estate and its impressive research center to a perpetual trust. 
Rothamsted Manor

 Since then Rothamsted has contributed much to world food production, including the development of 2,4-D during WWII, for better or worse, one of the widest used herbicides in the world.  And last year Rothamsted was again working with  wheat, managing to do something that this small grain has resisted for decades – create a wheat GMO that reduces depredation by aphids.  The wheat is modified to produce an aphid alarm pheromone produced by aphids when under attack.  This helps deter the pests.   An angry crowd of anti-GMO protesters laid siege to the Hempstead facility, but a “large police presence” prevented serious damage.  The protesters, like those pesky aphids, were repelled.

For a very long time now we’ve been asking the plant and animal kingdoms to be generous and more user friendly.  Concern about how we’re affecting Mother Nature is something we’ll always need to face, whether using caution in genetic modification or saving heirloom seeds.  The hope is to make it a better world for all, not just for us humans.  Our green thumbs are apt to leave their fingerprints on things as we try to improve them.   

Sonora Wheat Berries (top) and Spelt firmly in their husks
Right now, out in Agoura Hills, we’re growing a hard red spring wheat called Glenn, first developed by North Dakota State University in 1997.

Glenn 13 days after planting
Glenn with Red Fife & Sonora in background

When it was released in Canada, that country’s Food Inspection Agency reported:  “Overall, 'Glenn' was selected, particularly for its high yield, very good milling and baking traits as well as disease resistance.”  However, many farmers report that Glenn is difficult to thresh, the kernels tending to remain on the spike despite their best efforts.  Two steps forward.  One back.   

Hey, shouldn’t someone be developing a strain of wheat that can stand on its own against dandelions and crabgrass?   Never mind the amount of gluten.

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