Wheat – a plant that changed the world

How wheat came to rule the world

Wheat has made a bigger impact on the world than almost any other plant. Its prevalence in the modern world is unrivalled, and the story of its history and rise to dominating the global food chain is just as incredible.

The origins of wheat

Around 12,000 years ago, humans in Turkey and neighbouring areas of the Middle East existed on a diet mostly of animals they killed and wild fruit, and new evidence suggests that wild grains were also consumed. Around that time, a period of dry and very cold weather hit the region, killing much of the wildlife. As a result of this, humans were reduced to just eating grass. 

One of those grasses was a starchy seeded plant called Einkorn, and another popular one was goatgrass. As the cold period continued for about 1,000 years, people realised that if they stuck the seeds from these plants into the ground and waited, they would get an inevitable harvest. From this, the first cultivated crops were born. 

As the years passed and sowing became more popular, the seeds cross-pollinated to form hybrids- the first real wheats as we know them. The process, although difficult to prove, probably started with wild Einkorn crossing with goatgrass to produce Emmer. This then bred with another form of goatgrass to produce the first strain of durum wheat. This secondary hybrid then became re-crossed with some of its parents to give an incestuous offspring with massive ears of starch, an easily removed seed husk and an inability to seed itself; modern wheat was born. 

Wheat in the 20th century

Technological advances in soil preparation and seed placement at planting time, use of crop rotation and fertilisers to improve plant growth, and advances in harvesting methods have all combined to promote wheat as the viable crop it is today.

In the 20th century, global wheat output expanded about five-fold. After 1955, there was a 10-fold increase in the rate of wheat yield improvement per year, and this became the major factor allowing global wheat production to increase. This boost encouraged technical innovation and scientific crop management, with fertiliser, irrigation and wheat breeding being the main drivers of wheat growth throughout the second half of the century. 

Better seed storage and germination contributed to the technological improvements, enabling less of a requirement to retain harvested crop for the following year’s seed.  In Medieval England, farmers saved one quarter of their wheat harvest as seed for the next crop, leaving only three quarters for food and feed consumption. By 1999, the global average seed use of wheat was about 6% of output.

Top 5 wheat producing countries

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAOSTAT), China produces more wheat than any other country. Around 126 million metric tonnes of wheat are produced in the country per year, on a land area of 24 million hectares. 

India is the second biggest wheat producing country, accounting for about 8.7% of the total wheat production in the world (over 98 million tonnes). Wheat is the second most important cultivated food crop in India, after rice, and feeds hundreds of millions of people on a daily basis.

Russia is the third largest wheat producer in the world and produces around 85 million tonnes of wheat per year. Winter wheat is the primary variety of wheat grown here and the crop is mostly raised in the western parts of Russia surrounding Moscow.

The USA ranks fourth in the world in terms of quantity of wheat produced, producing around 47 million tonnes each year. There are eight varieties of wheat grown in the country, the most important of these being durum wheat. 

France is the fifth largest wheat producer in the world and the largest producer of wheat in Europe, producing around 37 million tonnes per year. It is cultivated to the greatest extent in the northern regions and the French state of Centre is the leading wheat producing region in the country.

(Source: www.worldatlas.com)

The demand for wheat

Since 1901, the world’s population has increased four-fold, from 1.6 to 6 billion. So far, the world’s farmers have been able to keep up with the increasing demands, but the earth’s resources are now under severe strain. 

By 2030, the population is likely to have increased by a third, and the challenge is to feed an additional 2 billion people from the same amount of land and water that is available now, and to do so in a sustainable manner. 

Varieties of wheat

There is a wide range of organic seed available on the market,  including Alicia, Paragon, Edelmann and Elicit. Organic seeds are grown in natural systems, with a focus on soil and plant health, using natural fertilisers and pest control.

Additionally, there is a wide range of conventional seed on the market, such as Nelson, Skyfall, Elicit and Costello. These seeds are grown in conventional systems, using synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. 

Wheat facts

  • The Roman Goddess, Ceres, deemed protector of the grain, gave grains their common name today- cereal. 
  • Wheat is grown on more than 216,000,000 hectares around the world, larger than any other crop. 
  • Along with rice, wheat is the world’s most favoured staple food. Wheat protein is easily digested by nearly 99% of the human population (gluten sensitivity is the exception) as is its starch. 
  • There are substantial differences in wheat farming, trading, policy, sector growth and wheat uses in different regions of the world. In the EU and Canada, for instance, there is a significant addition of wheat to animal feeds, but less so in the USA. 
  • In the financial markets, traders decide how much they would be prepared to pay for wheat on a future date, or how much they would be prepared to accept for wheat on a future date. This is what caused the rise in wheat prices in 2007.