agriculture

Ancient Wheat Could Save Us from Another Irish Potato Famine

“Diversity in grains is key for a sustainable food future,” says scientist Abi Glencross, who wants more people to eat older, genetically diverse crops. “Look at the Irish Potato Famine. That’s a prime example of a severe lack of diversity."

by Daisy Meager
04 August 2017, 9:00am

Some people bring back novelty magnets from their holidays, others go for postcards or those weird shot glasses you can only find in tacky gift shops. But for scientist Abi Glencross and chef Sadhbh Moore, seeds are the only souvenir worth returning from a trip with. And when I visit the grain-obsessed pair at the Skip Garden Kitchen in London's Kings Cross, they've got a bounty to show off.

Making my way through the urban vegetable garden, I enter a homely cafe decked out with wooden benches and smelling of simmering stews. Next to the inviting cakes and brownies on the counter, Moore plonks down a heavy bag and starts to unload its contents.

"There's a bag of timilia perlata which is a really old, traditional variety of durum wheat and isn't grown outside of Sicily. I picked up these grits when I was in North Carolina," she explains. "The einkorn flour is from the UK."

She continues: "We're trying to show the genetic diversity that grains can have. All the grains varieties are different—they give different colours, tastes, and textures. That's what we're trying to show people."

Grains collected abroad by chef Abi Glencross and scientist Sadhbh Moore. All photos by the author.

Of course, the grains are more than just mementos from their trips. Moore and Glencross are part of The Sustainable Food Story, an agricultural collective that aims to discuss and educate people about food and farming issues through supper clubs. I've come to meet them ahead of their dinners at the Skip Garden, which will explore the history of grains—from ancient, genetically diverse varieties to the vast monocultures of milling wheat grown today. And why we need to start growing and eating more of the former.

"Milling wheat is just a really crap crop," states Glencross. "It's hungry, whether it's organic or not. It's really susceptible to weeds and pests. It's just a bit of a shit crop because we've grown it for a massive ear, rather than anything else. It has a tiny root and doesn't give anything back to the ground because it's been bred to put all its energy into growing up."

She continues: "And then we're milling it and taking out all the good things like the bran and the germ. You're left with this starchy nothingness which is used for white bread and pasta. It's got no nutrients and doesn't really taste of anything."

Winter spelt.

Glencross pulls a bunch of different crops out of another bag. There's winter wheat, spring wheat, and a branched wild oat crop. The tallest—with a thin, spindly stalk and heavy ear—is winter spelt. The root, however, is just a couple of inches long. Glencross tells me this is because historically, spelt has been crossed with modern bread wheat for its large ear, leaving it with a stunted root.

"I'm trying to get into the really old stuff that we haven't grown for centuries. Sure, they aren't going to solve everything but they have traits like a range of nutrients, deep root systems, they grow taller, and have weed-suppressing qualities. It's all these things that we've lost. Diversity in grains is key for a sustainable food future. Look at the Irish Potato Famine. That's a prime example of a severe lack of diversity. Yet, we've not learnt from it."

Instead of trying to diversify and protect our future food supply, the opposite is happening. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, wheat is one of the world's most widely grown crops. Last year, global wheat production accounted for nearly a third of all cereal crop output—equivalent to 758.1 million tonnes. In the UK, to fuel our meat-heavy diets, 40 percent of grain produced is fed to animals. And with the demand for wheat expected to rise by 60 percent by 2050, great effort is being directed towards developing more energy-efficient GM crops.

Glencross shows the crops' stunted roots.

Obviously, this means that wheat is big business for farmers—in the UK, it's the largest arable crop grown. Glencross admits that it could be tricky to persuade farmers to grow more speciality, niche grains.

"The price farmers get for milling wheat is really low but they know that there's a market to sell to. It's about finding alternative markets, and then mills and bakeries who'll take it. It's a whole localised system that you're having to start from the word go," she says. "But there are companies like Hodmedod's who say that if you can grow a crop, they'll buy it. You need more places like them who will be willing to buy it."

For The Sustainable Food Story group, highlighting the difficulty in growing old grains is half the battle against bringing down milling wheat. The group also wants to show people just how versatile the grains can be in the kitchen through community cooking projects. Today, Moore is prepping a typical dish from one of these events: summer squash, Gouda, and einkorn (one of the first types of domesticated wheat) croquettes.

"For me, it's also about considering the fact that all things are pointing towards eating less meat for both its environmental impact and health impact," says Moore as she measures out the einkorn. "I think grains and pulses will become the biggest source of proteins in our future diets because meat is going to have to feature less if we care at all about our carbon footprint and health. They also have loads of great textures and flavours."

Moore preps carrots for einkorn croquettes.

Moore chops an onion and some carrots for the croquette filling and continues: "Some people don't like that 'healthy' flavour, like that nuttiness and maltiness, at first but I think it's because they're not used to flavour. They're used to white, cardboard bread."

"There is no white bread or pasta around here," chips in Glencross.

I'm convinced by their arguments for growing and eating more diverse grains, but I'm unsettled by their vilification of cheap carbs. For many, this filling, starchy food may be all their budget allows. And I'll be the first one to argue that a bacon sandwich made with wholesome rye instead of the own-brand white is just plain wrong.

"For the agriculture side of things, that's why I'm so interested in the weird varieties and getting them into people's consciousness. It will be a niche market to start with," says Glencross. "But if you look at anything that's trickled down, it started off as elite. Once it's realised that there are benefits on the farm and then the Government might realise they don't have to fortify it, it will slowly become a thing. But it will take time. This is the starting point."

But she admits that not every farmer is in the grain-growing game for the greater good. "There are a few farmers who want [ancient grains] to stay niche," she says. "For example, one company who produce einkorn flour don't want to say where their einkorn berries are from. But there are others who want them to go mainstream."

For Moore, getting more diverse grains onto plates now, goes hand-in-hand with the need to cut down on meat.

"You can say that it sounds elitist and for those who can afford to but if you eat less meat then you can afford to eat," she explains. "Even the cheapest meat is usually more expensive than good quality grains that have been grown with a lot of concern for the natural environment and have great nutritional value."

The cooked einkorn.

I try a spoonful of the now-cooked einkorn. It's got a rich, nutty flavour and even a single mouthful feels substantial. I'm still unconvinced, though, that everyone will happily give up their sausages or roast chicken in favour of these hearty, ancient grains. But perhaps with mainstream veggie initiatives like "Meat Free Monday" and everyone claiming these days to be a flexitarian, reducetarian, or … cheegan, we're more ready than we think to embrace grains.

"We're a vegetarian cafe partly run by an environmental youth charity and put on free kids cookery classes. The kids used to question where the meat was in dishes but now they don't even bat an eyelid when we make lasagna with lentils," says Moore. "We've been teaching them about the grains and cooking with them. They'll say they've told their parents about what we do in classes and then you worry that they've asked their parents to buy expensive things."

She continues: "But it's all swings and roundabouts because if their parents don't have to buy minced beef for chili con carne and buy kidney beans, then it's cheaper and we feel like we're already having an impact."

And who knows, I might eat my words about an einkorn bacon butty.