From Humble Grass to Worldwide Staple: A History of Wheat

Staple crops are foods that shape the dietary foundations of one or more regions. Rice is an example, serving as a pillar of several Asian countries’ cuisines. Hardiness, high-yield, and nutritiousness are all hallmarks of staple foods. Once highly local and numerous, the number of major staple foods has shrunken in the past few centuries. The two main reasons for this are industrialization and global trade.

Industrialized agriculture prizes the mass production of failure-resistant crops, often to the detriment of genetic diversity. Rather than grow several types of corn, the favored strategy is to pick a hardy strain that will produce the most product. This trend along with the increasing interconnectedness of global markets has led to a consolidation of staple crops, with just three (rice, wheat, and corn) providing over half of the world population’s caloric intake.

A Brief Genealogy of Wheat

Before the development of agriculture, hunter-gatherers had to forage for grains and others edibles to round out their diets, which meant that weeds and wild grasses were on the menu. Among these were einkorn, emmer, and goat grass. Consumption of these cereal grains can be traced back 75,000 years to an area known as the Fertile Crescent, a stretch of the Middle East considered by some to be the cradle of human civilization. Just 10,000 years ago in this same region, archaeological evidence has shown people collecting and planting einkorn and emmer seeds. This shift from nomadic hunting and gathering to settlement-based agriculture is wheat’s first milestone.

While not as specialized as today’s genetic modifications of food, ancient farmers did, to some extent, selectively breed their crops. Scholars debate how intentional this process was prior to our modern understanding of genetics, but many agree that farmers likely chose which grasses they wanted to farm based on criteria that appealed to them. The size of their seeds, taste, and hardiness are all traits our prehistoric ancestors might have selected for, choosing to replant specimens with these features over others, thus perpetuating and intensifying the expression of these traits in future crops.

Over time these practices domesticated certain wild grasses, producing einkorn wheat and emmer wheat. Once confined to the Fertile Crescent, these ancient strains of wheat spread across the globe via trade and migration. Two notable examples of this were the Silk Road and the colonization of the Americas. Merchants brought their cultures along with them on the caravans and to the cities they stopped to trade in. This helped share what they believed in and the languages they spoke, but also transmitted their culinary customs and the methods required to reproduce their foods. As for those who colonized the New World, many were dissatisfied with the indigenous peoples’ staple crops, and so they imported flour and wheat seeds to be able to eat what they were accustomed to in the new colonies.

Nutrition and Taste of Wheat

 Staple crops are designed to grow plentifully, yet if no one benefits from eating them or even wants to eat them, they cannot satisfy any mass market. Wheat is packed with carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and minerals, and when ground into flour, it can satisfy a wide range of tastes as a main ingredient in various breads, noodles, breakfast cereals, and confections.

Most people are aware that whole grain flours are healthier than their refined counterparts. To produce wheat flour one must grind its kernels (another name for seeds) into a powder that can then be used to make baked goods. Originally this was done with hand tools, usually stones, though eventually milling technology grew to the size of buildings. With a mill, kernels are placed in a device designed to grind grains by amplifying the work of some outside force. The earliest mills relied on people or animals to power them through manual labor, or mechanical energy. Later on, wind and water were harnessed to ease and improve the output of mills. Modern technology has bypassed the need for windmills, though it has not changed people’s culinary preferences.

Refined wheat flours are those that have had the bran and germ removed from their kernels during the grinding process, leaving only the endosperm to be ground down further and later bleached. While not the only method of processing wheat, it is by far the most popular. In wheat, the bran and germ are where a considerable portion of the nutrients are stored. They are a major part of what give whole grains their nutritional benefits and also their coarser texture and bitter flavor. Some enjoy these culinary properties, though the majority of consumers prefer the smoother texture and taste of more finely ground, refined flours. The trade-off of palatability for nutrition often leads manufacturers to supplement the vitamin and mineral contents of their refined flours, as refining processes that strip the bran and germ from wheat kernels, and bleach what remains can remove up to 80% of the grain’s micronutrients.  

Global Footprint of Wheat

With modern milling processes and industrial farms, wheat is more palatable and easier to produce in larger quantities than ever before. Among staple crops, wheat is only second to rice as a global source of calories. Corn, known as maize internationally, leads both in terms of yield weight, though just 15% of corn is consumed by people. The other 85% goes toward cattle feed and corn byproducts, such as sweeteners, starches, and biofuels. However, wheat comes out on top when looking at acreage, with 226 million hectares dedicated to the crop. This is roughly comparable to the size of Greenland, the world’s largest island. If a plant’s goal is to proliferate, then wheat might be called one of the most successful in all of history. We often see ourselves as using nature, though occasionally nature also uses us.

Works Cited

Awika, Joseph M. Advances in Cereal Science: Implications to Food Processing and Health Promotion. American Chemical Society, 2012, pp. 1-12.

“From Wild Grass to the Industrial Mill”. FlourWorld Museum Wittenburg, Stern-Wywiol Gruppe, flour-art-museum.de/english/background-and-culture/history-of-flour.html. Accessed 16 Feb. 2020

“Industrial agriculture”. New World Encyclopedia, 2 March 2018, http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/industrial_agriculture. Accessed 16 Mar 2020.

Snyder, Dave. “Great Grains: How Ancient Einkorn Became the New ‘It’ Wheat”. JSTOR Daily, JSTOR, 18 May 2016, daily.jstor.org/einkorn-the-new-it-wheat/. Accessed 16 Mar 2020.

“The Natural History Of Wheat”. Encyclopedia.com, Cenage, 20 Feb. 2020, http://www.encyclopedia.com/food/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/natural-history-wheat. Accessed 16 Mar 2020.

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