the grain revolution

The Grain Revolution

This Guide primarily focuses on wheat and has been compiled and written by people who are passionate about the earthy gift of grain. Our focus is on nutritious diets and delicious grains, and we will introduce you to a few of the varieties of wheat and other small grains that thrive in North America. But it is also about the staff of life: the role grains play in our ecosystem’s health, and wheat’s traditional, social, and nutritional relevancy, today more important than ever.

Modern wheat is a survivor. Over the course of thousands of years it has evolved from a wild grass into today’s ubiquitous grain, a “staple food of the major civilizations in Europe, Asia and North Africa.”[1]  Its success has been attributed to innate adaptability: more than 30,000 varieties[2] of wheat grow in a range of climates and soils across every continent except Antarctica. Its resilience has also been credited to its symbiotic relationship with homo sapiens: as hunter-gatherers observed and compared wild grasses over time, their diets evolved from foraged sustenance to diets based on controlled proliferation. By selectively breeding wheat, humans created a new, reliable source of calories.[3]

By any definition, wheat is a cultural disrupter and a nutritional change-maker. Taming wild grasses to become edible grains enabled ancient people to claim a measure of control over their diets. In many ways, this was indicative of progress as more people could be routinely fed, crops occasionally yielded a surplus that could be stored against the shortcomings of future harvests, and tribes could put down roots in settlements that evolved during the process of domesticating wheat[4]. But there were also challenges: the labor dedicated to nutrition increased significantly because of the work required to prepare land for growing, transport water, pull weeds, and harvest, dry, and process crops each year.

Leaping forward to today’s grocery shelves, we face a problem with wheat’s ascendance, fueled as it is by ingenious industrialization. This genius has come at a cost, however: compromised flavor, compromised plant diversity, and compromised human, animal, and environmental health.

The New England Grain Guide draws from the national and international grain revolution that is growing out of a recognition of what has been lost. Wheat breeders, farmers, millers, bakers, chefs, scientists, and distillers are investigating and investing in varieties of wheat, barley, and other grains that favor flavor and nutrition and that suit the surrounding geography and climate. The resulting diversity of grains is fueling the movement toward local and regional foods and food cultures that honor place-based identity. Like wine, grains derive taste from place. The modern advocates of regional grain networks are searching through the food landscape for a story that goes deeper than the top layer of food system practicalities: they are in search of wheat that speaks of history, tradition, culture, survival, diversity, healing, and pleasure. They take note of the gift of grain.

[1] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Website, Information on Post-Harvest Operations

[2] Encyclopedia of Food

[3] Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari

[4] Evolution of Domesticated Bread Wheat, Nancy A. Eckardt, Website