Green standing stalks of barley against a blue sky with small red flowers in the foreground

Wheat and Grains

From the mountains of Latin America to the arid African Sahel, grains have been a foundation of many human diets for millennia. Barley was one of the first crops to be domesticated, roughly 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. Teff is an incredibly resilient grain native to Ethiopia, where it was first domesticated more than 6,000 years ago and continues to be made into injera, a fermented flat bread. Amaranth, domesticated as early as 8,000 years ago in northern Argentina and Mexico, was important enough to be offered to the gods by the Aztec peoples.

“Green Revolution”

In the mid 20th century, concerns about the world’s inability to feed its growing population loomed large. Working in Mexico, American biologist Norman Borlaug created a dwarf variety of wheat that diverted more energy into growing its edible kernels instead of tall, inedible stems.

Borlaug’s new wheat varieties helped to double global crop yields, initiating the “Green Revolution”—but it came at a cost. New crops required huge increases in synthetic fertilizer use, and have displaced thousands of local heirloom crop varieties, diversity now known to offer resilience against pests and climate change.

What Makes a Grain “Whole”?

The grains of a wheat plant are actually its seeds. Processing grains removes these seeds’ fiber-rich outer layer, which also contains B vitamins and minerals. It further removes the germ: the nutrient-dense core of the grain that contains B vitamins, vitamin E, and healthy fats. After processing, only the endosperm’s starchy carbohydrate center remains. Though lacking in nutrition, processed wheats make the softest, chewiest breads.

Often, the best varieties of a food crop come from unlikely sources. When farmer David A. Fife emigrated from Scotland to Canada in 1820, he carried with him a few wheat seeds gifted by a friend, supposedly from Germany. Fife planted the seeds that winter only to discover the wheat was actually a spring variety; only three of the plants survived. When Fife replanted the few remaining seeds the following year, the wheat thrived—completely free of the ‘rust’ blight affecting other local varieties. Fife shared the seeds with a neighbor, and within 100 years “Red Fife” became the premier bread wheat across all of North America. Today, genetic testing indicates the seeds gifted to Fife to be a relative of Halychanka wheat, a Ukrainian heritage wheat.

Here are some fun facts about wheat and grains!

  • Wheat is the most widely grown cereal grain. It’s grown on over 17% of the land in the world, and is the staple food for 35% of the world’s population. It provides more calories and protein in the world’s diet than any other crop.
  • In 1324, King Edward II of England set the standard for measurements, making the “inch” equal to “three grains of barley, dry and round, placed end-to-end lengthwise.”
  • Quinoa is a whole grain that was highly prized by the ancient Incas—they called it “gold of the Incas.”