The wheat we eat is in danger — and scientists in Israel are among many around the world working to find solutions
Ancient Wheat Ancestors
The wheat we eat today isn’t the same as the wheat grown in ancient times, or even just a couple hundred years ago. It’s changed in many ways — better in some ways, but worse in others.
Every plant has a place that it originates from. People come along and take seeds or trees of that species and plant them in other places in the world. Citrus fruits originally came from China. Apples came from Kazakhstan, but had spread far and wide by 1,500 BCE. But the biggest winner when it comes to conquering territory has been wheat.
Wheat originally came from the Fertile Crescent, which includes Israel, Turkey, Iraq, and other countries. But einkorn and emmer, the first wheat grown by farmers, didn’t look like the wheat we’d recognize. They were basically big grasses, with unimpressive seed heads at the top.
All grass makes seeds if you let it grow tall enough, and the grass on your lawn is distantly related to wheat, barley, and corn. But not all grass can become breads, cakes, cookies, pies, and other treats. So how did that ancient wild grass turn into the wheat we know and love?
Since the dawn of civilization, farmers have been changing wheat, just like they’ve changed other fruit and vegetables. They choose to plant seeds from the juiciest, sweetest oranges, knowing that plants grown from those seeds will grow oranges that are juicier and sweeter. When it comes to wheat, farmers chose the plants that produced the most and largest seeds, so that they could grow more food with less work.
The good news is that they were incredibly successful. Over the years, wheat plants began producing more and more big, tasty seeds on the same amount of land, with less work. And once farmers and scientists create an excellent type of wheat, everybody wants to grow that type. So more and more growing land is taken up by fewer and fewer types of wheat.
What’s Wrong with Our Wheat?
Today, we’re all enjoying the benefits of thousands of years of breeding — wheat is cheap and available almost everywhere — but it’s created some big problems as well.
For one thing, modern wheat is less nutritious. Wheat has about 23 percent less protein than 60 years ago, along with fewer vitamins and minerals; some people believe it’s harder to digest. Modern wheat also takes a lot of water, fertilizer, and pesticides to reap those delicious kernels. Plus, when everybody grows only one type of wheat, if a disease comes along that affects that exact type of wheat — like rust, a family of deadly fungus — then none of the plants are immune, meaning it can wipe out an entire crop in weeks. Fortunately, scientists in Israel, located in the birthplace of wheat, are taking the lead when it comes to finding solutions to all these problems.
Getting Corny about Wheat
The oldest kind of wheat is called einkorn, a German word meaning “one grain.” The words “corn” and “grain” might sound different, but they both come from an older root, “ger” or “gher.” In German, the G became the K in “korn” (and “kernel”), while in Latin it morphed into “grain.” Because English borrowed words from both Latin and German, we wound up with both!
For a long time, the word “corn” was used to describe the main food grain of a particular place, whether that was barley, wheat, spelt, teff, or something else. In fact, they even used “corn” for things that weren’t grains, which is how we get “peppercorn” (whole black pepper), one of the ingredients that makes corned beef absolutely delicious… but not at all corny. In most places, “corn” now means only the familiar yellow American grain officially called Zea mays, though in England it’s still sometimes called maize.
Another grainy word people sometimes mix up is “flour.” Even though most of our flour is made from wheat, it actually means any ground-up grain or food, which is how we get potato flour, coconut flour, or almond flour, all used in gluten-free (or Pesach) baking.
And by the way, even though we spell it differently, the word “flour” actually does come from the word “flower,” which originally meant “the best part.” So the next time someone asks you to put out flowers on the table for Shabbos… consider a few sacks of whole wheat, triticale, or cornmeal for variety!
Genetic Detective Work
The secret to fixing modern wheat so it’s more nutritious and less fragile lies in its genes — the genetic code that tells a plant how to grow. As farmers develop new varieties, they edit some of these codes out of the wheat’s genes. For example, they may choose wheat with genes for plumper kernels, but accidentally remove genes for disease resistance or vitamin production.
By studying rare and ancient wheat varieties, from very old seeds or seeds found growing in out-of-the-way places, scientists can actually put these genes back in — and solve some of the problems with wheat.
It’s not easy finding the right genes. For one thing, there’s a huge number of wheat varieties. The Wild Cereal Gene Bank at the University of Haifa is home to over 17,000 different types of cereal grains, mainly wheat and barley. And the “Land of Wheat” project holds around 1,000 wheat varieties. Most of these aren’t commercially grown anywhere in the world.
To find out whether one type of wheat might have useful genes, scientists need to grow it and then test it. That’s slow detective work that can take years. But the rewards can be tremendous. Rewards like…
- Natural Insect and Disease Resistance
Dr. Amir Sharon at Tel Aviv University is working to find ancient wheat strains that do better at fighting diseases like rust. And Dr. Vered Tzin at Ben Gurion University of the Negev is exploring ways that wheat can actually fight back against destructive insects, like aphids. Ancient wheat had a coating of fine hairs that kept insects away, and it produced a powerful natural insect poison. These genes will help create wheat that needs fewer chemicals to protect it.
- Wheat That Grows in Rough Places
Deserts have been expanding. That means there’s less land to grow on; hot and dry areas also have salty soil, making it hard to grow regular wheat. When Dr. Shimon Gepstein and his team at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa forgot to water some tobacco plants being grown for an experiment, they accidentally discovered a natural hormone that increases a plant’s ability to survive drought. Meanwhile, at an Israeli start-up called SaliCrop, researchers are creating wheat varieties that let farmers use poor, salty soil for wheat and other crops.
- Healthier Wheat That Feeds More People
Some ancient wheat strains may have more iron, zinc, and other important nutrients. But tapping into those old genes isn’t easy. Dr. Uri Kushnir of Israel’s Agricultural Research Organization Volcani Center combined genes from three ancient wheats to create “super pasta wheat,” which produces more, resists drought, and is more nutritious than regular pasta wheat. Other Israeli scientists have gone in a different direction, starting a company to “edit” wheat’s genes to remove gluten, a protein that can set off allergies, intolerances, or celiac disease, so that people who can’t tolerate gluten can enjoy the goodness of wheat.
The Bread of War?
If you know some Hebrew, you’ve probably noticed that the word for bread, lechem, is right in the middle of the word for war, milchamah. There are no coincidences in Hebrew! Most wars throughout history have been connected to food — for instance, to gain land to grow food.
Even in Tanach, lechem often refers not only to bread but to food in general. That may be why when Avraham Avinu told the malachim that he would bring them food, he said pas lechem, so they knew he meant bread (Bereishis 18:5). And in English, it’s no coincidence that ground-up grains are sometimes called “meal.” All over the world, grains have usually been the main part of a meal.
What Is Sourdough?
During COVID-19, when people were stuck at home with nothing to do but bake, sourdough bread became wildly popular. But you might be wary. With “sour” right in the name, can it really taste that good?
Sourdough is actually the oldest way of making bread. Today, we usually reach for dry yeast to make our bread rise. We need yeast, a single-celled fungus that naturally lives on wheat and other foods, to make fluffy bread. But for most of history, there was no dry yeast.
Somewhere in the Fertile Crescent, hundreds of years ago, bakers discovered that if they made a wheat flour and water dough and fed it fresh flour, after a few days it would puff up (ferment) and take on a tangy, sour smell. They could then use a little fermented dough to make a whole batch of fluffy bread. They didn’t know how it worked — microscopes wouldn’t be invented till many years later — but everyone loved the results.
Until packaged yeast was invented in the 1800s, sourdough was the only way to make fluffy bread. To make their bread rise, bakers could save raw dough from a previous batch, borrow yeast from beer makers, or even soak crumbs of old bread.
Today, we have a choice, and when there’s no lockdown, sourdough baking takes longer. But some people love the challenge. And scientists believe that sourdough breads may be easier to digest, possibly because the sourdough yeast (which is know as a starter) does some of the “digesting” for you.
And don’t worry — sourdough bread doesn’t have to be sour. By using different yeasts, different amounts of yeast, and different rising times, expert bakers can adjust the dough’s flavor to get a rich, yeasty taste, plus the nutty flavor of wheat, and a pleasant, gentle tang. There are sourdough breads for every taste, including yours!
Growing a Better World — With Wheat
What all of this means for the world is more food security, meaning we can keep on enjoying wheat in all its forms, wherever we live, and also enjoy better nutrition.
And what does it mean for you? Well, it all comes back to that plate of pasta, or sandwich, or rugelach, or cookie. As you say borei minei mezonos or hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz, think about those thousands of types of grain… and all the scientists around the world who are exploring the secrets of Hashem’s rich and amazing world of wheat.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 946)
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