Wheat – a plant that changed the world

Origin 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 – but no cereals. Around that time, a period of dry and very cold weather hit the region and killed much of the wildlife – so humans were reduced to eating grass.

One of those grasses was a starchy seeded plant called einkorn (Triticum boeoticum). Another popular one was goat grass (Aegilops speltoides). As the cold snap continued (for about 1,000 years) people realised that if they stuck seeds into the ground and waited, they would get an inevitable harvest. The first cultivated crops were born.

As 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, was probably something like this:

Wild einkorn crossed with goat grass to produce emmer (Triticum dicoccoides). This then bred with another goat grass (Aegilops squarrosa) to produce the first strain of durum (pasta) 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 (Triticum aestivum) was born.

The Roman goddess, Ceres, deemed protector of the grain, gave grains their common name today – “cereal”.

Wheat in the 20th century

Technological advances in soil preparation and seed placement at planting time, use of crop rotation and fertilizers 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 fertilizer, irrigation and wheat breeding 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 next 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.

Worldwide consumption

Wheat is grown on more than 216,000,000 hectares (530,000,000 acres) around the world, larger than any other crop. With rice, wheat is the world’s most favored staple food. Wheat protein is easily digested by nearly 99% of human population (gluten sensitivity is the exception), as is its starch.

A map of worldwide wheat production

A map of worldwide wheat production

Source: Map of wheat production (average percentage of land used for its production times average yield in each grid cell) across the world compiled by the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment with data from: Monfreda, C., N. Ramankutty, and J.A. Foley. 2008. Farming the planet: 2. Geographic distribution of crop areas, yields, physiological types, and net primary production in the year 2000. Global Biogeochemical Cycles 22: GB1022:

Top wheat producers (in million metric tons)

A map of worldwide wheat production

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 significant addition of wheat to animal feeds, but less so in the USA.

The world’s most productive wheat farms and farmers

In 2010, the average world farm yield for what was 3.1 tonnes per hectare.

Dutch wheat farms were the most productive in 2010, with a nationwide average of 8.9 tonnes per hectare. Belgium was a close second.

Yields of above 12 tonnes per hectare are routinely achieved in many parts of the world: one farmer in New Zealand recorded 15.64 tonnes per hectare (232.6 bushels/acre)

Wheat fact: 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 caused the rise in wheat prices in 2007.

Life cycle of wheat

The life cycle of wheat from seed germination through to harvest is as follows:

The Egyptians were the first to produce risen loaves using yeast, probably by accident when beer was used to mix dough instead of water.

Principal wheat diseases

Brown rust Destructive on winter wheat, small brown pustules develop on the leaf blades in a random scatter distribution.  Chemical control with fungicides may be useful for control up to ear emergency.
Common bunt A disease of spring and winter wheats, infection cannot be easily recognized until near maturity.  The entire kernel is converted into a ‘sorus’, also called a bunt ball.  The spores contaminate healthy grain during harvest, transport and storage.  Control includes using clean seed, fungicidal seed treatment chemicals and resistant cultivars.
Ergot A fungus that causes ergotism in humans and other mammals who consume grains contaminated with its fruiting structure. In almost all instances the appearance of ergot in wheat indicates copper deficiency.  Copper may be applied to soils mixed with other fertilizer as a management solution.
Septoria leaf blotch Major disease of wheat in the UK and can reduce yields by 30-50%, leading to a potential economical impact.  This fungus is difficult to control because populations contain extremely high levels of genetic variability, control does rely on the application of azole fungicides.
Loose smut Infection occurs at flowering when spores germinate and grow in the wheat grain.  Infected heads of wheat emerge before the healthy wheat heads, this allows the smutted head to break open and scatter black smut spores over healthy heads of wheat.  Systemic seed treatment and resistant varieties give good control of this disease.
Spot blotch Spot blotch occasionally occurs on wheat under wet growing conditions, particularly when wheat is grown after wheat.  Crop rotation and foliar fungicides give good disease control in high yielding crops.
Stem rust Stem rust, or black stem rust, is characterized by the presence of brick-red, elongated, blister-like pustules which are easily shaken off.  Most frequently occurring on the leaf sheaths, but also found on stems, leaves, glumes and awns, stem rust typically deposits spores close to the source, however long-distance dispersal is also documented.
Take all Take all can be very destructive on spring and winter wheats.  Whole plants are infected often in small to large patches, and are prone in unbalanced fertility and wet growing conditions in alkaline soils.  Copper is essential in managing the problem, and the availability in manganese in soil appears to play a significant role in the build-up and severity of this take-all disease.
Wheat fact: Since 1901, the world’s population has increased fourfold, from 1.6 to 6 billion people. 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. The challenge is to feed an additional 2 billion people from the same amount of land and water that is available now.

Varieties of wheat

Mulika is a top performing, Group 1 bread-making spring wheat variety with excellent all round disease resistance and strong grain quality. Mulika performs well both in late autumn and spring, and can be sown from November through to mid April.

Resistant to Orange Wheat Blossom Midge, Mulika has a good protein content and performs consistently well in baking tests. The leading spring wheat variety with over 40% of the market (source: www.HGCA.com).

Dafne is a new spring wheat variety that offers a good alternative to current varieties Mulika, Paragon, Tybalt. Having just completed 2 years of Official UK HGCA Spring Wheat Trials* it produced yield results similar to slightly better than those of Mulika. The Treated trials also showed Dafne to have +7% yield above Paragon but in the Untreated trials Dafne has produced a +1% yield advantage over Mulika and +2% above Paragon.

Dafne is similar to Paragon in straw height, making it taller than other varieties such as Mulika, Tybalt etc. It has good stiff straw and a very good disease resistance package and is early to mature.

* Source: HGCA (www.hgca.com)

Wheat fact: The Institute of Food Research, Norwich, UK were partners in a “farm to fork” DEFRA link project to increase the levels of selenium in wheat which is an essential element for the human immune system. Intake has decreased over the last 30 years because we no longer import high selenium wheat used for milling from North America. Instead we grow 80% of our own milling wheat in soils which are low in selenium.
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