The modern wheat crop is the staple food of millions of people across planet Earth and its origins can be traced back approximately 10,000 years. During this time, the Earth’s population has doubled ten times, from less than 10 million people to greater than six billion with projected estimates as high as 9.7 billion. Most of the calories that made that increase possible have come from three agricultural plants: corn, rice, and wheat. The oldest, most widespread and until recently biggest of the three crops is wheat. Generally speaking, wheat is the staple food of mankind, and its evolution and domestication reflect that of humanity.
So where did wheat come from? It began with the cultivation and repeated harvesting and sowing of grains of wild grasses. With preferential selection by man for desirable traits, this led to the creation of domestic strains of wheat like Emmer wheat (Triticum dicoccum) and Einkorn (T. monococcum). Over the centuries farmers continued to make selections from their fields of wheat that showed favorable traits such as non-shattering spikes, ease of harvest and yield. Eventually, newly improved wheat’s started to dominate.
The cultivation of wheat reached Southern Europe and India by 6500 BCE. One thousand years later it was farmed in Germany and Spain. By 3000 BCE, wheat had reached the British Isles and Scandinavia. A millennium later it reached China.
Today, through intense plant breeding and biotechnology, two genetically different types of wheat have developed over the years. Common Wheat (Triticum aestivum) is the most widely grown. It is also known as bread wheat. This type generally has a high protein and gluten content. The second, Durum Wheat (Triticum turgidum) or pasta wheat is known for its hardness, high protein, and intense yellow color.
Winter wheat is planted in the Fall and overwinters while Spring wheat, as its name implies, is planted in Spring. During the summer, the plants begin to fade from dark green to tan and eventually to a golden brown. The crop is ripe and ready for harvest. This type of crop is best harvested with large combine harvesters. Combines remove the spikes from the plant stems and separate the kernels from the rest of the unusable plant material.
So remember, the next time you break a piece of bread or butter a scone, stop and think about the historical journey of this crop. From a grass collected by people in the Middle East that eventually was cultivated and domesticated into Emmer and Einkorn. Where selection for traits such as larger grains, non-shattering spikes, and crop yields made harvesting easier which further helped its global dissemination. A gift from our ancestors kept finely tuned by modern genetics and biotechnology. In short, wheat continues to be the staff of life.