Triticum durum wheat
Wheat is one of the world's top food crops and one of the first to be cultivated. The development of wheat agriculture is credited with dividing the Stone Age from the age of civilized man. Today, wheat is the world’s No.2 dietary staple just behind rice but ahead of corn and bananas, accounting for 19 percent of all the calories that mankind consumes, compared to 20 percent for rice.

Wheat can easily be grown, handled and stored and keeps so well it can shipped anywhere and stored for years. It yields a large amount of food for its weight and can be used in making a wide variety of foods: bread in Germany, noodles in China, pasta in Italy, couscous in North Africa, and breakfast cereal in the United States.

Most wheat is divided into two types: hard wheat and soft wheat. Hard wheat such as durums are used to make pastas and soft wheats are used in pastries, noodles and mixed with other grains for bread. Soft wheats alone lack the stickiness to make bread and stiffness for pasta.

Top wheat-producing countries: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) China, 15805966 , 112463296; 2) India, 11671546 , 78570200; 3) United States of America, 9301602 , 68016100; 4) Russian Federation, 6670506 , 63765140; 5) Canada, 4462759 , 28611100; 6) France, 4388762 , 39001700; 7) Pakistan, 3023994 , 20958800; 8) Australia, 2653403 , 21420177; 9) Ukraine, 2618186 , 25885400; 10) Turkey, 2428920 , 17782000; 11) Germany, 2315299 , 25988565; 12) United Kingdom, 1666334 , 17227000; 13) Kazakhstan, 1378582 , 12538200; 14) Argentina, 1234294 , 8508156; 15) Egypt, 1012186 , 7977051; 16) Italy, 897733 , 8855440; 17) Romania, 895241 , 7180980; 18) Brazil, 877289 , 6027131; 19) Poland, 811707 , 9274920; 20) Iran (Islamic Republic of), 800547 , 7956647;

Websites and Resources: Wheatmania wheatmania.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Wheat Foods Council wheatfoods.org ; Purdue University article hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/crops/wheat ; National Association of Wheat Growers wheatworld.org ; International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center cimmyt.org ;


Grains are members of the grass family. Scientists have found genetic evidence that the world's four major grains---wheat, rice, corn and sorghum---evolved from a common ancestor weed that grew 65 million years ago.

Grains like oats, barley, wheat and rye contain three parts: 1) the endosperm (rich in carbohydrates and protein); 2) the bran (rich in fiber, B vitamins, chromium and other minerals); and 3) the germ (rich in B, E, and K vitamins, iron and other minerals). Milling grains into flour usually removes the germ and bran, leaving only the endosperms. Manufacturers often enrich their products with the missing nutrients.

Grain protein, called gluten, is nutritious and provides a stickiness useful in trapping yeast and making bread. Grains like oats, barley and rye are rich are soluble fiber, which slows down digestion and helps lower cholesterol. Wheat is high in insoluble fiber which helps keep bowel movements regular.

Grains as Steppe Grasses

grain structure
Grains such as wheat, barley, oats and rye were originally steppe grasses. The grass family is one of the largest in the plant kingdom, embracing some 10,000 different species worldwide. Contrary to what you might think, grasses are fairly complex plants. What you see are only their leaves.

Grass flowers are often not recognizable as such. Because grasses rely on the breeze to distribute pollen (there is a usually lots of wind on the steppe) and they don’t need colorful flowers to attract pollinators such as birds and bees. Grass flowers have scales instead of pedals and grow in clusters on special tall stems that lift them high enough to be carried by the wind.

Grasses need lots of sunlight. They do not grow well in forests or other shady areas. Tall feather grass grows well in the well-watered parts of the steppe. Shorter grass grows better in the dry steppe where there is less rainfall. Chiy, a grass with cane-like reeds, is used by nomads to make decorative screens in the yurts

Grasses can tolerate lack of rain, intense sunlight, strong winds, shredding from lawnmowers, the cleats of Athletes and the hooves of grazing animals. They can survive fires: only their leaves burn; the root stocks are rarely damaged.

The ability of grass to endure such harsh conditions lies in the structures of its leaves, The leaves of other plants spring from buds and have a developed a network of veins that carry sap and expand into the leaf. If a leaf is damaged a plant can seal its veins with sap but do little else. Grass leaves on the other hand don't have a network of veins, rather they have unbranched veins that grow straight, and can tolerate being cut, broken or damaged, and keep growing.

First Crops, Einkorn and Emmer Wheat

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emmer wheat
The first domesticated crop is believed to have been einkorn wheat, a kind of nourishing grass adapted from a wild species of grass native to the Karacadag mountains near Diyarbakir in southwestern Turkey first cultivated around 11,000 years ago. Scientists deduced this by examining the DNA of modern strains of einkorn wheat and found the were more similar to einkorn wheat grown in the Karacadag mountains than in other places. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, November 20, 1997]

Collecting seeds from wild grass is not an easy matter. If you pick the seeds before they are ripe they are too small and hard to eat. If you wait so long they fall from the stem and you have to pick them up one by one. With some grasses the period in which the seeds are feasible to collect is only a few days a year. If one wants to get a long term food supply it makes sense to collect as much as you can and take it back to your cave and store it.

Emmer wheat, rye and barley were cultivated around the same time, and is difficult to say which was cultivated first. Emmer wheat and another wheat strain from the Caspian Sea are thought to be the first bread wheats. Emmer wheat is a wild grass. It is thought to have been singled out because its seeds stay attached to the stem significantly longer than that of other grasses.

Which Came First Beer or Bread?

Beer making in ancient Egypt
No one knows why man made the switch to agriculture. There at least three dozen major theories. One, the beer theory, argues that people decided to settle down and grow grain so they sit around and drink beer together in small villages. Forty percent of the wheat from Sumerian harvest went to make beer.

Neolithic food consisted of barley bread, beer, and likely a variety of meat and grain dishes. The oldest barley beer have been dated to 3400 B.C. The date was determined by analyzing samples of beer extracted from ancient jars with solvents.

Archaeologists debate which came first bread or beer. Beer starts with sprouted barley, which is moistened and allowed to geminate, a process called malting which converts starches into fermentable sugar called maltose.

Maltose can be fermented producing alcohol as one its byproducts. The same yeast used in fermenting can also be used to make bread. Consuming maltose was one way barley could be consumed without it being hulled, cracked or milled.

Wheat as Food

Barley, wheat and rye bear their seeds in spikes. Wheat grains (seeds) contains about 10 percent water, 14 percent protein, 2 percent fat , 2 percent ash and 72 percent carbohydrates. The protein, called gluten, is nutritious and provides a stickiness useful in trapping yeast and making bread. Most of the carbohydrates are in the form of starch.

A kernel of wheat is comprised of 83 percent endosperm, 15 percent bran and 2.5 percent wheat germ. The endosperm is used in making white flour. Bran is used in making whole wheat flour.

Bread can be made from almost anything---grains, potatoes, bananas, nuts---but wheat is most commonly used. All bread is either leavened or unleavened. Leavened means that it contains a substance such as yeast or baking soda that produces carbon-dioxide and causes the bread to rise and become light from air bubbles in the bread. Unleavened bread is hard and dry like matzo.

Hard wheats make a lighter bread than soft wheats because they are richer in gluten which traps more yeast.

Wheat Agriculture

Wheat is a member of the grass family and thus is very hardy. It grows well in areas with both plentiful rain and little rain but generally needs 400 mm of rain or irrigation water a year,. a cool and moist spring and hot and dry summer. The best soils for wheat are deep, well drained loams.

Wheat harvest
Winter wheat is grown in places with mild winters. It is planted in the fall. After it takes root it stops growing until spring, when it starts growing again. It is harvested in the early summer with enough time to allow for the planting for another crop for the summer. Winter wheats originated in the Crimea area, north of the Black Sea.

In much of the world wheat agriculture is highly mechanized. After the ground is prepared with a tractor-pulled plough made up of steel disks, wheat is sown with mechanical sowers using both the broadcasting (scattering) and drilling methods. Wheat is resistant to most diseases and pests. Once it starts growing it needs little maintenance. Its tall, thin stems grow close together to keeps weeds out.

Timing is important for the harvest. If the wheat is cut too soon it will not keep well. If it is cut too late, the seeds will scatter in the harvesting process. In the old days wheat was harvested with a sickle. Now it is harvested with a mechanical cutter called a reaper.

After harvesting wheat chaff and stalks need to be winnowed from the grains. In the old days this was done by hand. Now it is done by machines called threshers. A combine is combination reaper and thresher that does both the cutting and threshing. The machines used to harvest and winnow wheat had a great impact on agriculture by reducing the number of people needed to work the fields.

New Strains and Increased Wheat Yields

20120525-GlobalTrade_wheat_coarse_grain_soy_2008_usda.png Wheat agriculture is more productive than it used to be. A field of wheat that produced food for 5 people 750 years ago now produces food for between 20 and 50 people. Wheat yields in developing countries doubled between 1970 and 1995 thanks to Green Revolution seeds and technologies and wheat now vies with rice as the number one crop in the developing world.

New plant varieties and advances in agriculture have boosted wheat yields by nearly 80 percent. New wheat strains are resistant to heat, drought and pest and are more efficient at converting sunlight, water, and nutrients to grain. Wheat now grows in areas that were originally thought to be too arid and dry to raise crops.

The down side of the trend towards widespread use of a few types of high-yield wheat strains has been to the disappearance and extinction of many other strains in a very short period of time. Only 10 percent of the 10,000 wheat varieties grown in China in 1949 are still in use.

Wheat Production

Droughts in 2006 sent wheat prices to record highs. Wheat production during the 2006-2007 cycle was 588 million tons, with a shortfall of almost 30 million from an expected demand of 607 million.

See Biofuel, Food Crisis


Barley field
Barley is a grain that is similar to wheat in appearance and is the only grain that grows well in the extreme north and in high altitudes. It can be found in Arctic regions and in the high Himalayas. Russia leads the world in barley productions (around 42 million tons a year).

Barley is rich is soluble fiber, which slows down digestion and helps lower cholesterol. It is rarely eaten in the West anymore because it regarded as coarse and is associated with peasant food.

Barley is made into black barley bread and sometimes served as a side dish. Traditionally barley has been a less important food source than other grains because it contains only small amounts of gluten, which is desirable when making bread. It is chiefly used as livestock feed, malt, thickening soups and modifying cow's milk for babies.

Top barley-producing producing countries: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) France, 869819 , 12171300; 2) Germany, 555426 , 11967114; 3) Australia, 548647 , 7996506; 4) Ukraine, 497808 , 12611500; 5) Russian Federation, 394278 , 23148450; 6) United States of America, 359017 , 5229590; 7) United Kingdom, 290611 , 6144000; 8) China, 281992 , 3100000; 9) Spain, 171513 , 11261100; 10) Argentina, 157877 , 1690085; 11) Ethiopia, 124543 , 1352148; 12) Turkey, 123894 , 5923000; 13) Czech Republic, 111011 , 2243865; 14) Denmark, 102351 , 3396000; 15) India, 96815 , 1196100; 16) Morocco, 80710 , 1353240; 17inland, 75477 , 2128600; 18) Poland, 75229 , 3619460; 19) Hungary, 74524 , 1467055; 20) Kazakhstan, 72901 , 2058550;

Websites and Resources: Barleyworld: barleyworld.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; World’s Healthiest Foods whfoods.com ; BarleyFood, org barleyfoods.org ; U.S. Grains Council grains.org/barley ;

History of Barley

Barley fruit
Grains such as wheat, barley, oats and rye were originally steppe grasses. Emmer wheat, rye and barley were cultivated around the same time, and is difficult to say which was cultivated first. Emmer wheat and another wheat strain from the Caspian Sea are thought to be the first bread wheats. Emmer wheat is a wild grass. It is thought to have been singled out because its seeds stay attached to the stem significantly longer than that of other grasses.

Barley was first grown in the Jordan valley about 10,000 years ago. The earliest levels of excavations at Jericho indicate that the people that lived there collected seeds of cereal grass from rocky crags flanking the valley and planted them in the fertile alluvial soil.

Wheat and barley agriculture spread out of Fertile crescent by 7000 B.C. By 6000 B.C., it had gotten as far as the Black Sea and present day Greece and Italy. By 5000 B.C. it had spread to most of southern Europe. The Linear Pottery Culture of central Hungary is believed to have introduced agriculture to central Europe around 5000 B.C. Agriculture finally reached southern Britain and Scandinavia around 3800 B.C. and north Britain and central Scandinavia by 2,500 B.C.

Barley Agriculture

20120525-beer Ingredents_of_Faroese_beer.jpg
beer Ingredients
Barley, wheat and rye bear their seeds in spikes. Barley is divided into the six-rowed type, four rowed-type and two-rowed type, based on the structure of the spikes. The six-rowed type has the highest yields. The four-rowed type are used in high altitudes and northern climates.

Barley needs well drained soils but does not thrive in sand. Because barley ripens in a relatively short period it can often be sown and harvested after wheat.

In highland areas such as Tibet, barley is cultivated on rocky terraces or hills. Sometimes plows are attached to yaks but most fields are hoed by hand with long-handled wooden spades. To ensure that the barley gets all the available water, weeds are pulled up and later eaten as food or given to animals. Some farmers also manage to grow turnips, radishes and cabbage.Harvesting is done by hand with sickles. Villagers help their neighbors during the harvest in return for help with their harvests. Those with no land trade labor for grain.

After harvesting barley is bundled and laid out in sheaves to dry. It is threshed with rakes and sticks. Eric Valli wrote in National Geographic, "The barley is prepared handful by handful as workers twist the tops of the stalks from the straw. Then the threshing begins as beaters face each other, the women in one row, men in the other. Singing to set the rhythm, each row of beaters wields wooden flails against the heads of barley on the hard packed ground. As the beaters tire, their song slows; it picks up as they revive.”

Barley is often winnowed in the wind by women. In the Dolpo region, the women whistle to call wind and gently tips their basket. Valli wrote, "A woman with a basket tosses threshed barley in the air; the chaff blows away and the seeds fall.” When most of the work is done in Dolpo, there is feast in the village with barley beer and music made from with five-string lutes and dancing around a fire.


20120525-beer malt_at_Foroya_Bjor.jpg
large bag of beer malt
Malt is barley or another grain that has been artificially germinated or sprouted by moisture and heat. Traditionally, it was made by steeping the grain in cisterns from 48 to 100 hours at a temperature of about 55̊F, then spread on a floor to germinate, and then dried.

During the malting process various enzymes are produced by fermentation. One of the most important is diastase , which has the ability to change starch into sugar. Maltose is a kind of sugar produced from starch by malting with diastase.

Malt is used in brewing beers, making malted milks and baby food (the malting process has the same effect as partial digestion).

See Beer

Other Grains

Rapeseed oil has shown great potential as an alternative to fossil fuels. On the down side, though, studies have shown that it produces 10 times more cancer-causing pollutants than diesel fuel.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

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