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Could ancient grains hold the key to modern day problems?

Article-Could ancient grains hold the key to modern day problems?

iStock / bjdlzx millet-ingredient.jpg
Momentum to incorporate ‘minority’ grains into our food system is building, from millet to teff and from emmer to einkorn.

Ancient grains have been enjoying a revival in recent years, but the UN’s decision to declare 2023 the International Year of Millets, has really brought to the fore the concept of using ‘forgotten crops’ to solve modern day food security and sustainability challenges.

Ancient grains include varieties of wheat: spelt, kamut, einkorn, and emmer; the grains millet, barley, teff, oats, and sorghum; and the pseudocereals quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, and chia.

All are experiencing a resurgence, the extent of which is largely determined by how avidly they are being championed by consumer brands, agri firms, researchers, trade associations and NGOs.

Millet certainly seems to be getting its share of support, with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) the lead agency charged with raising awareness of the nutritional and health benefits of millets and their suitability for cultivation under adverse and changing climatic conditions.

Currently, millet accounts for less than 3% of the global grains trade. That is because, as other cereals have become widespread, dietary preferences have shifted and led to a decline in demand for millets.

By encouraging the consumption and production of these underutilised crops, the FAO’s aim is to help millets regain market share, creating opportunities for small-scale farmers and improving the resilience of global markets by mitigating reliance on other grains. 

Reintroducing millets requires a coordinated effort from the different stakeholders in the value chain - farmers can only grow grains for which seeds are available and will only grow them if they know there is demand from the market. Equally, food manufacturers can only develop products if they can be sure that a reliable supply can be guaranteed.

Case study: Building supply chains for millet

The VltaMì (Varietà Italiane di Miglio) project, led by South Tyrolean company Dr Schär, is one food manufacturer working with partner farmers to establish a value chain for millet. 

“Today, Italy and Europe in general are suffering from increasingly critical climatic conditions, and millet is a resilient, adaptable crop,” explained Ombretta Polenghi, director of global research and innovation at Dr Schär. “Our goal with VltaMì is to obtain new, high quality millet varieties with improved agronomic, technological and nutritional characteristics to be included in the supply chain.”

The first field trials for the new millet varieties began in 2022 and the aim is that the first seed will be distributed to Dr Schär’s partner farmers in 2025, with the seed entering the supply chain in 2026.

This is not the first time Dr Schär has led projects to revive forgotten crops. The company was also a key stakeholder in the EU-funded Re-Cereal project to improve the quality and yield of oats, buckwheat, and millet, and has partnered with the Laimburg Research Center on the Field100 biodiversity initiative.

Beyond millet: Einkorn and emmer

In Hungary, meanwhile, researchers at ÖMKi (the Hungarian Research Institute of Organic Agriculture) have been focusing their efforts on the revival of two lesser known ancient grains: einkorn and emmer.

“Einkorn is the most ancient cereal that humankind first cultivated and emmer is the ancient predecessor of durum wheat. Because they are low yielding and require additional processing for dehulling, they were forgotten when modern durum wheat became predominant,” said Dr Dóra Drexler, director of the institute.

However, with the dual challenge of climate change and the susceptibility of durum to fusarium, ÖMKi recognised that resilient alternatives to common wheat were needed and in 2018, got involved with EU-funded crop diversity project Diversifood.

“Our thinking was that einkorn and emmer must have a higher capacity to adapt to climate change and we were interested in the nutritional quality of these grains. We hypothesised that they would be higher quality as we knew from literature that they have a higher fibre and protein content and that einkorn in particular has a higher beta carotene content,” said Drexler.

She explained how, to start with, the team performed a small trial using seed samples from different gene banks.

“We deliberately planted them in very extreme conditions - in poor sandy soil - because we wanted to see whether they could cope. We were quite surprised when, after the first year, only one accession disappeared during the winter. All the others survived and were developing quite nicely,” said Drexler.

The next step was to proliferate the seeds, and then engage farmers to test the seeds.

“Testing continued at a farm level. We gained a lot of data from different parts of Hungary, some extremely low input environments and some that were more intensive. We also started participatory breeding with some of these farmers. That is still in progress,” she said.

The researchers also tested emmer and einkorn for susceptibilities, and found that fusarium was not a problem.

“Some of the cereals were susceptible to yellow rust but einkorn seems to be so robust we couldn’t find anything to harm it,” she said.

Mitigating market risk

Growing new - largely unknown - cereals is a risk for farmers, but so too is over-reliance on export markets given recent global events.

“This year, the market was disrupted all across Europe, so export markets became virtually non-existent for Hungarian farmers. This is where the development of local value chains could help and needs more attention because domestic consumption is more reliable than global markets,” said Drexler.

To this end, ÖMKi has mapped a network of farmers, millers and bakers so that they can work together more easily and is involved with another EU-funded project, Divinfood, designed to boost the value of neglected under-utilised crops.

“We are working together with millers, bakers and pasta manufacturers to test whether emmer and einkorn are suitable for bread, pasta and biscuits,” she said.

The downside of a high digestible protein content is that the dough can be sticky and difficult to handle, but these challenges can be overcome, said Drexler.

Another challenge is the small scale of current ancient production, which ÖMKi estimates at 100-150 hectares for einkorn and 50 hectares for emmer (in Hungary).

However, Drexler said that production is increasing.

“We can see interest growing - you can find einkorn bread in bakeries now and the winner of this year’s Soul of the Bread competition (Kenyérlelke) was an einkorn loaf. This drew attention to einkorn and proved that it is possible to bake bread with this ancient grain.”