The history of wheat

History celebrates the battlefields whereon we meet our death, but scorns to speak of the ploughed fields whereby we thrive. It knows the names of the king’s bastards but cannot tell us the origin of wheat. This is the way of human folly.  –           Jean-Henri Fabre (1823 –1915) French naturalist and author

 Wheat, barley and rye can trace their origin back to Triticeae, a grass that grew wild in the Fertile Crescent. Wild einkorn and emmer are wheat’s earliest ancestors; they had seed heads that quickly broke apart in the wind, scattering the seeds and permitting self-sowing. Modern-day wheat is the opposite: the grains now stay on the stalks no matter how strong the wind.

Modern-day wheat did not benefit as much as corn from the Fritz Haber process of combining nitrogen with hydrogen to make ammonia. Until the middle of the 20th century, applying nitrogen as fertiliser on wheat made it grow taller and thicker, but it fell over in the wind and rotted. Wheat needed to be genetically improved to take advantage of the technological progress in fertilisers.

One of the first leaps forward occurred in 1935 when a Japanese scientist named Gonjiro Inazuka crossed a semi-dwarf Japanese wheat species with two American varieties to produce an improved semi-dwarf variety Norin 10. Unlike previous types, which grew to 150 cm, Norin 10 only reached 60–110 cm.

In the late 1940s, Orville Vogel at Washington State University took another step forward when he imported Norin 10 into the US and crossed it with other varieties to yield high-yielding, semi-dwarf winter wheat.

However, the revolution in wheat—and it was a revolution—occurred in 1952. Norman Borlaug took some of these new Norin hybrid seeds to Mexico and grew thousands of unique varieties. He couldn’t sequence the wheat’s DNA to figure out which genes caused these traits because that technology didn’t exist then, but he carefully noted each variety’s characteristics. His work paid off, producing new kinds of dwarf wheat that were rust-resistant and didn’t blow over (lodge) in high winds.

By the 1960s, Borlaug was travelling the world to spread the news. His first stop was Pakistan where wheat yields were around 360kg an acre. Mexican farmers were by then getting more than three times that. His major success, however, was in India.

When India became independent in 1947, the country produced only 6.5 million tonnes of wheat each year, and yields were around 663 kg per hectare. It was not enough to feed the Indian population, and the country largely depended on food-aid imports from the US.

In 1963, India was on the brink of famine. The government invited Borlaug to India to test his new varieties. His yields were four or five times better, and India’s farmers quickly took up the new breeds. By 1974, India’s wheat production had tripled, and the country was self-sufficient in food. India has never faced a famine since.

In 1970 Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for enabling what came to be called the ‘Green Revolution’. He earned it.

World wheat production has more than tripled in the last sixty years, from 234 million mt in 1960 to 772 million mt in 2020. At the same time, wheat acreage has only risen 10 per cent, from 202 million hectares to 222 million hectares. Without Norman Borlaug, the world population would not have increased over that same sixty-year period from 3.0 to 7.7 billion. And what’s more, crop failures and famines would still be regular occurrences.

But it is not just the varieties of wheat that have evolved over the centuries; so too has the way humanity has sown, harvested and ground it into flour.

Ancient Egyptians sowed wheat by casting seeds into the mud after the retreat of annual floodwaters along the Nile. They then drove their cattle over the area to trample the seeds into the ground. Hand scattering of seed is still used today in many parts of the world.

Early farmers harvested their wheat with sharpened stones fitted into a wood or bone handle, but the introduction of iron and steel led to the sickle, a tool that is still widely used. Sickles are light enough to be used by women and children and allow wheat to be cut at any height so that they can leave the straw standing or cut it separately.

The sickle was so crucial in human development that the USSR put it with the hammer on its flag. The hammer represented industry, the sickle, agriculture.

The scythe was an improvement over the sickle with a longer blade at right angles to a long wooden handle. You can harvest wheat faster with a scythe than with a sickle, and you can stand upright while you do it. However, a scythe cuts the straw close to the ground, leaving it attached to the wheat head. A scythe is heavier than the sickle. But the scythe has again entered into our collective psyches with death portrayed as the Grim Reaper harvesting souls.

The first mechanical reaper appeared in 1831: a two-wheeled, horse-drawn contraption pushed a series of moving, scissor-like blades against the grain to clip it close to the ground. A rotating paddlewheel swept the stalks against the cutting bales, so they fell on a platform as the machine moved forward.

Once farmers had harvested the wheat, they spread it on a plot of hard ground or threshing floor. They then drove cattle or horses over the grain so that their hooves separated the wheat from the chaff. Winnowing, or tossing the mixture into the air, then allowed the wind to blow away the lighter chaff and the heavier wheat to drop back. The threshing machine later used fans to separate the chaff from the grain, mechanically doing the process.

As its name suggests, the modern combine harvester performs all these basic jobs in one operation. Hiram Moore developed the first version in 1834 and, by 1860, combine harvesters had cutting widths of several meters. In 1885, Hugh Victor McKay, from Australia, developed the first commercial combine harvester, called the Sunshine Harvester. It reduced the number of working hours needed to harvest one acre of wheat from 46 hours to 30 minutes. Today a modern combine can harvest 1,000 bushels per hour. That’s more than 27 metric tonnes.

Once harvested, wheat needs to be milled into flour, separating the outer bran and germ from the inner, more digestible, endosperm. Although wheat has been grown for thousands of years, humans’ teeth from excavated villages dating back to 6,700 BC show no signs of wear, indicating that those early people already milled wheat. Archaeologists have found grinding stones at sites of ancient settlements in almost all parts of the world.

Over the centuries, mills have been powered by men, horses, oxen, water, or wind, all geared to turn one stone against another. The Romans were the first to use waterpower for milling flour, in about 100 BC, and it remained a significant source of mill power. In 1870, most of the approximately 22,000 flour mills in the US were still water driven.

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