Just four crops – wheat, corn, rice, and soy – provide around 60% of all calories consumed globally, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and, within those crops, a small number of modern, hybrid varieties dominate.
While modern cereal varieties have higher yields, they tend to be short plants with shallow root systems that are unable to deal with drought and require chemical inputs.
Ancient varieties, on the other hand, are hardier and more adaptable. They can thrive in low-input conditions and poor soil without the use of chemical fertilisers and can withstand extreme weather conditions to a greater extent than modern hybrids.
Resilience: The beauty of a genetically mixed cereal population
There is no official definition of what an ancient grain is; however, the Heritage Grain Trust defines heritage grains as populations and varieties with high levels of genetic diversity that predate the era of modern seed hybridisation, which started around 1900.
The US-based Whole Grains Council deﬁnes ancient grains loosely as “grains that are largely unchanged over the last several hundred years”. (The terms ancient, heritage, heirloom, and ancestral tend to be used interchangeably, although there are differences.)
According to UK-based farmer Letts, if the agri-food system is to be truly sustainable, it must maximise genetic diversity within the crop as well as biodiversity within the field.
“We've put ourselves in a corner because those [modern] crops are no longer fit for purpose in a future where we're not going to have cheap nitrogen, and we can't keep spraying herbicides and fungicides and pesticides,” said Letts, speaking during an Fi Europe 2022 panel discussion, ‘Back to the future – Defining ancient and heritage grains and where they fit into a healthier ecosystem’.
“They're not resilient in any way and you can't really breed [resilience] into a monoculture. You can breed in disease resistance and other characteristics, but it doesn't make the crop resilient like an old population is. Every plant is identical and it reacts the same way,” he said. “[...] The beauty of having a very genetically mixed population [is that] every plant is going to react slightly differently.”
In a field with genetically diverse populations, some crops will thrive better in cold weather, others in hot weather, and they will have different root structures. This diversity is what ensures the entire crop will not fail if there is a drought, period of freezing temperatures, or an invasion of pests that prefer one variety over the others.
Drawing on the wisdom of ancestors
Despite the current reliance on a small number of crop species and varieties, there is huge diversity in the plant kingdom. The wheat family, for instance, includes different wheat species such as rye, Khorasan (known commercially as Kamut), spelt, einkorn, and emmer. Within these wheat species are different varieties and strains. Other ancient grains include quinoa, amaranth, sorghum, teff, fonio, and millet.
Letts, who grows mixed populations of both species and varieties, said he has thousands of varieties in his fields. Thanks to this diversity, he experiences “slight increases and decreases” in his yield but, importantly, no crop failures – and the wider food industry should take note, he said.
“If we are going to continue to survive, we have to draw on not just the wisdom of our ancestors and the way [crops] were grown but also the actual crops,” he said.
source: Adobe / mtrlin
What are ancient grains like to work with?
With the increasing frequency of climate shocks, ancient varieties and mixed crops could therefore ensure more reliable supplies – and supply chain resilience is of growing importance to the food industry.
But food manufacturers also look for uniformity in their ingredient supplies. Can a field of mixed species and varieties of grains produce a flour that has the same taste, texture, colour, and functional properties in every harvest, allowing brands to make products that have batch-to-batch uniformity?
Via his company Heritage Harvest, Letts is supplying The Oxford Artisan Distillery with ancient varieties of wheat, rye, and barley for its entire range of spirits, which includes whisky, vodka, and gin.
“It might not be the economical way to produce spirits but the flavour profile these grains produce, and the environmental benefits, pay it back in spades,” says The Oxford Artisan Distillery on its website. “Our commitment to soil quality, land regeneration, community, and the environment goes beyond our passion for spirits.”
Complex, nuanced flavour profiles
Heritage Harvest also sells flour under Letts’ Lammas Fayre brand. One product, a white flour, is milled from a blend of over 200 organically grown heritage varieties of bread wheat.
Wholesale supplier Bakery Bits, which stocks Lammas Fayre, notes that flours from ancient grain varieties can be “more challenging” for bakers because they tend to have lower protein (gluten) levels. It recommends using 100% Lammas Fayre flour for an authentic heritage loaf and blending 50% Lammas Fayre with 50% strong white for “a lighter loaf with the heritage flavour”.
Modern food processing often removes the complex flavour profiles of ingredients. According to Ruth Nieman, Fi Europe 2022 panellist and author of the book Freekeh, Wild Wheat and Ancient Grains, consumers should embrace the flavour of ancient grains and freekeh, typically made from roasted and smoked green durum wheat.
“By putting all these additives in, you're taking away from the natural flavour,” she said. “It is about healthy eating and clean living [and] it’s also about being available and affordable to all. But more importantly, [...] what do want from our food? We want flavour, and if you haven't got the flavour, there's no point.”
Nieman noted that in the nineteenth century, rich people aspired to eat white bread made from pure, refined, “clean” flour, while bakers used the bran and germ to make bread for poorer people – which, ironically, was more nutritious.
“We need to move our mindset to having flavour in our food; it doesn’t matter what it looks like,” she added.