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The Promise of Ancient Grains for Future Food Security

Modernizing ancient grains like einkorn and emmer for modern markets could help improve crop diversity and ensure food security, according to plant breeding experts.

By Kate Wheeling


The kernels of einkorn wheat are inside these spikelets. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Ancient grains are finding new life on modern food markets.

Though humans have been growing grains like einkorn, emmer, and spelt for millennia, it’s bread wheat that has come to dominate our modern diets. Thanks to its high yield and relatively low price, bread wheat has fed large portions of the world’s population since the mid-20th century. But the success of bread wheat varieties has come at the cost of grain diversity. And with climate change and pesticide-resistant bugs threatening the survival of today’s dominant crops, diversity is becoming ever more important to food production.

The best way to enrich crop diversity could be to create markets for specialty products based on ancient grains, Friedrich Longin and Tobias Würschum, both of the University of Hohenheim in Germany, argue today in Trends in Plant Science.

The need for more diverse grain options, Longin and Würschum note, has coincided with increased consumer demand — and a willingness to pay higher prices — for potentially healthier grain options. General Mills, for example, now makes a pricier version of Cheerios made with quinoa, spelt, and Kamut wheat.

A coordinated effort all along the product chain could bring ancient grain products to consumers, increasing crop diversity in the process.

Spelt is another stellar example of the market potential of ancient grains, according to the authors. Spelt was once the main cereal crop in several European countries, but it was largely forgotten until the late 20th century, when enterprising bakers and millers re-discovered old recipes. Today, the grain is re-established within the health food market, with global demand occasionally exceeding supply. Other ancient grains lay forgotten in gene banks, according to the authors, just waiting to be re-discovered.

But it will take more than just market demand for most ancient grains to make a comeback. Plant breeding will play a critical role, Longin and Würschum write.After spending a decade screening einkorn and emmer varieties for the grains’ agronomic and product potential, they found einkorn to be rich in vitamins and minerals, but a relatively poor-performing crop compared to bread wheat; the long stalks of the ancient grain made the plants top heavy and more likely to fall over in wind and rain. But that’s where plant breeding comes in: Since spelt was first re-introduced, the main varieties farmers grow today have shorter stalks and higher yields thanks to breeding.

Longin and Würschum don’t envision ancient grains ever eclipsing bread wheat. “These ancient species will hardly help to feed the growing world population as they are often low yielding and not adapted to modern agricultural practices,” they write. But a coordinated effort all along the product chain — from breeders to farmers to bakers — could bring ancient grain products to consumers, increasing crop diversity in the process.