Wheat - An Unfolding Story

Image Source: Kamelia at Pixabay

Image Source: Kamelia at Pixabay

I wholeheartedly agree when my friend Amy Rogers says “Everything is a food story”. Politics, trades, wars, culture, humanity, civilizations, poverty, basic decency and morals can all tie back to a crop or a bowl of soup, if you allow the story to unfold.

Wheat is one of the earliest crops humans’ story goes hand in hand with. You can say that the humans domesticated it ten thousand years ago. But actually “who domesticated who?” would be a good bumper sticker in this case, since it sounds to me like wheat tamed the hunter-gatherers and tied them to a piece of land. The history of wheat has been woven with our history for at least 10,000 years, starting in the Fertile Crescent. Einkorn, the first wheat known to humans, was traced back to the Karacadag in the south eastern part of Turkey. 

This crop has seen ups and downs like any other while swaying its loaded head in the wind. Wheat is in the top three cereals along with maize and rice. Per FAO, the world’s 19% of the calories comes from wheat products, consumed in different forms. The total global production approaches 700 million tons and Turkey is in the Top 10 producers. About 14% of the 1.5 billion ha. of agricultural land globally is dedicated to wheat (213.8 mil ha per 2011). In Turkey, our wheat land comprised of 7.6 million hectare in 2017, this is approximately the same size of land used for wheat production in 1960s. However the yield has drastically increased since then, and the production has gone from from 8.45 million tons in the 60s to 21.5 million tons in 2017 per TMO 2017 Report.  (You can find other statistical information in this excel file or Turkish Statistical Bureau  website.) This is mostly attributed to “Green Revolution”, when modern agricultural practices along with improved seeds had taken place to overcome the famine and food shortages after WWII. Dr. Norman Barloug, who won Nobel Peace Prize with his efforts to overhaul the traditional agricultural system with the help of Rockefeller Foundation, created high yield seeds from cross-pollination of different wheat varieties. Turkish farmers welcomed these high-yield and subsidized wheat types along with increased usage of fertilizers during 70s and saw the yields go up. However, what was not foreseen (or conveniently brushed aside) was the loss of “memory” due to the loss of heirlooms as well as the environmental pollution and the loss of biodiversity. The types that have been growing in our land for thousands of years have the memory of how to handle the stress and adapt to it. For example, Siyez, which is used for bulgur production, can handle the diseases, pest, droughts and unfavorable soil conditions. This gives it a competitive advantage. Thankfully, it is included in Slow Food’s Presidia project in an effort to protect this species. Siyez and Gernik are two of these heirloom types that are still being used, albeit at a much lower rate than others. Per a WWF Report, Turkey hosts 26 wild wheat varieties and 400 cultured wheat varieties. According to FAO Report of Wheat National Survey, less than 1% of the total wheat production is coming from local heirloom varieties.

Environmental effect of wheat production is the same as any other crop, mostly N-loading from fertilizers. Fertilizers and irrigation are the two major contributors to the carbon and water footprint respectively. However, it is hard to downplay the benefits of these two to the bottomline of the already stretched farmers by increasing yields. Based on the datasets in a research done by Water Footprint Network, the average water footprint (green, blue, and gray combined) of wheat production in Turkey was 2408 m3 of water per ton of wheat produced between 1996-2005. This is approximately the size of an Olympic size of pool (2500 m3) of water used for each ton of crop. Considering we produce 19.3 million tons of wheat a year on average (2004-2016), you do the math of how many pools we have filled up. For comparison, during those years, the global average was 1830 m3 of water per ton.

Various studies have been completed around the world for carbon footprint, showing a range of levels (200 kg CO2/ton of wheat in Australia, 361 kg CO2-e/ton of wheat in the UK and approximately 900 kg CO2-e/ton of wheat in Spain). The numbers might differ due to different farm management practices or the approach/assumptions that were used, but the common thread among the studies mentioned is the breakdown of this footprint. The highest percentage of the footprint comes from nitrogen fertilizers – either production, transport or application (by the way of N2O emissions). 

However, improved farming practices can be integrated into the management approach and  can have a reducing impact in the overall carbon footprint, as mentioned by Gan et al. The authors in this study looked at alternative wheat production systems and concluded that the practices such as fertilizing crops based on soil tests, reducing summer-fallow frequencies and rotating cereals with grain legumes lowers the carbon footprint of wheat productions.  They found that for each kg of wheat grain produced, a net 0.027–0.377 kg CO2-e is sequestered into the soil. No magic silver bullet, just a more holistic approach to the whole production system. Especially with a more precise approach to nitrogen fertilization, uptake and application can be balanced, reducing the N-pollution as well as the usage.

For the effect of the agriculture on biodiversity, look no further than the changing flora of weeds in the fields. Weeds are problematic for crops, and up to 30% yield losses have been reported. Various herbicides are being used in the fields to suppress the growth and weed flora is affected by not only herbicides but climate, soil, irrigation and other agricultural practices.  A study done by Arslan (2018) reported a significant loss in the weed species in wheat growing fields of Sanliurfa between 1967 and 2014. In 1967, 221 species were reported. In 2014, this number was reduced to 71 species, accounting three times loss of diversity. The author lists similar findings from different regions of the world on weed species loss.

Another big unknown in wheat production is the effect of climate change, more specifically increasing CO2 concentrations, decreasing precipitation and raising temperatures. It is argued in Ozdogan’s paper that increase in the atmospheric CO2 concentrations alone might increase the yields, however this positive effect is not large enough to compensate the yield drop (5-35%) we will see from decreasing precipitation and raising temperatures, depending on the timing and amount of change.

Everything has consequences, we just don’t know which one will dominate the other and by how much.  Just as we don’t know how the story of wheat will develop after this point in time. When I started writing this article, all references were referring to 10,000 year of known history of wheat being used until this article showed up , showing us one more time that if you let the story unfold another extra 4000 years, wheat has much more to tell!

References (not linked within the post): 

Abrahão, R., CArvalho M., Causapé J.; Carbon and Water Footprints of Irrigated Corn and Non-Irrigated Wheat in Northeast Spain, Environmental Science and Pollution Research (2016), Volume 24(6)

Arslan Z.F.; Decrease in Biodiversity in Wheat Fields due to Changing Agriculture Practices in Five Decades, Biodiversity and Conservation (2018), Volume 27 (12)

Bardsley D., Thomas I.; Valuing Local Wheat Landraces for Agrobiodiversity Conservation in Northeast Turkey; Agriculture, Ecosystems&Environment (2005);

Ozdogan, M; Modeling the impacts of climate change on wheat yields in Northwestern Turkey; Agriculture, Ecosystems&Environment (2011); Volume 141 (1)

Wheat Landraces in Farmer’s Fields in Turkey, National Survey, Collection and Conservation 2009-2014, FAO

Ilke McAlileyComment