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This is the first in a series about the plants that we eat and how they have changed over time, especially since the 1800's. This chapter of our research paper will discuss grains, specifically whole grains, since the modern milling processes that we have today were just beginning to be implemented back then. This is a rather long blog that sets the groundwork for the research on grains. Numerous smaller blogs will follow with specific information about individuals grains.
Humans have been eating wheat and feeding it to their animals since long before we can remember, probably 10 to 17 thousand years, at least. Actually though, our ancestors were not eating what we call wheat today. The earliest cultivated wheat that we know of is a variety that we call einkorn. Genetically it has 14 chromosomes. It doesn't make the nice fluffy bread and cakes that we are used to. The only good way to eat it is grind it up and make a porridge or a flat bread with it.
Somewhere along the way this einkorn met up with another grass called goatgrass and crossed (mated) with it. The resulting child plant now had the genetics of both parents for a total of 28 chromosomes. That gave it many more opportunities for genetic expression and some of those new characteristics were beneficial for a food crop. The people at the time started cultivating this new breed of wheat and we call it emmer.
These two varieties of wheat, einkorn and emmer, were probably what was used during bible times. The "staff of life" spoken of in the bible were these wheat varieties. About that same time, however, something new happened. Another grass called Triticum tauschii entered the picture and also crossed with emmer to create another new variety with 42 chromosomes called Triticum aestivum.
This new type is the most similar to modern wheat and only about 5 varieties of it existed in the mid 18th century. The new variety, with so many genes at its disposal, made it genetically 'pliable' and strains emerged that made for the light and fluffy breads and cakes that we are familiar with today.
Although wheat was brought to the Americas by Columbus in the 1500's and was grown during the colonial period it didn't grow very well. In the late 19th century Russian immigrants brought over a variety called Turkey red wheat which was hardy and well suited to the American climate. Wheat production at that time grew rapidly. With the invention of improved methods for harvesting and milling wheat it became an important staple in America during the 19th century.
Then something else happened. Due to the 'genetic pliability' of wheat with all those chromosomes to choose from it was easy to create and select for mutations with desirable characteristics. In order to keep up with increasing demand for wheat it was discovered that adding nitrogen to the soil would increase the yield. Unfortunately it also made the plants grow faster and taller which would then blow over in the wind and rot. A scientists (Cecil Salmon) on McArthurs team in Japan in the late 1940's found a short variety of wheat and an Oregon scientist (Orville Vogel) began crossing this short wheat to make a new shorter variety. Within a few years Vogel has created strains with three times the productivity as the old ones.
By the 1960's many farms around the world were using the new short wheat. Science then began with great haste to see what other new things they could create by mutating the wheat plant. They used anything that would damage the chromosomes leading to new mutants such as radiation with atomic particles, powerful X-rays, and highly carcinogenic chemicals. None of these mutants were tested to see what else may have changed other than the desired traits they were looking for. We still do not know the full extent of the damage done to the wheat genome and what happens when we eat these mutants.
Now instead of about 5 varieties there are more then 25,000 varieties of mutant wheat and it's from these mutants that we get the modern wheat our bread and cakes are made from. The genetic pliability of wheat saved it for a long time from the very specific Genetic Modification techniques used to create GMO maize (corn) and rice. According to a statement from the USDA there are currently no GMO (transgenic) forms of wheat for sale or in commercial production. 
Wheat contains Gluten - lots of it. Wheat has been gluten enhanced over the years to promote its excellent baking qualities. Gluten is gooey and Gluey and this promotes it sticking together to form lots of bubbles which allows bread to rise and be soft and chew-able. No other grain has the soft bread making potential as wheat. The gluey nature of gluten also help the dough to stick together so that it forms excellent noodles and other pastas, and pie crusts. Unfortunately many humans are sensitive to or allergic to gluten.
Based on archaeological evidence barley was apparently domesticated about the same time as wheat. Barley is a grass similar to wheat. Modern barley still has only the 14 original chromosomes as the wild version of the plant. Single gene mutations have resulted in some variation in barley types although they are generally considered all the same species. In wild barley the mature seeds fall out on the ground which facilitates reproduction.
In domesticated barley due to one of those single-gene mutations the seeds don't fall out making it easy for humans to gather it. The barley sheaves are then thrashed to knock out the seeds but that is better than them falling on the ground. Wild barley has two rows of seeds while another of those mutations causes 6 rows of seeds on domesticated plants.In many cultures barley has been as important or in some cases more important than wheat. In ancient Egypt barley bread and barley beer was considered a complete diet. At times when food was rationed a certain measure of barley was given to each citizen and that may have been the only sustenance they had at that time.
Barley was brought to America by the early colonists but the two row English barley didn't do well in the New England climate. Colonists were mainly raising barley to make beer. As the westward movement began in the 1800 barley production increased. Farmers found that the 6 row landraces were more suited to the climate and production increased. In the western US barly production began in the Spanish missions in the 18th century. Barley production increased in the Midwest due to beer production in such places as Cincinnati, Chicago, and Milwaukee.
The taste of barley is considered to be inferior to wheat so it has never been as desired for human food. The majority of barley is used in making malted barley, beer, and as animal fodder.
Although there has been an effort by farmers to breed different varieties of barley the interest has never risen to the level it has with wheat. With only 14 chromosomes to work with there are many fewer potentials for mutation. According to a statement from the USDA there are currently no GMO (transgenic) forms of barley for sale or in commercial production. 
Rice has been a domesticated grain for 10 to 14 thousands years. Rice has fed more people for a longer period of time than any other grain. Today rice sustains two thirds of the worlds population. Historical writings show evidence of rice as an important food source in documents dating back to about 2,800 BCE.
The early colonists to the Americas brought rice with them and it has been cultivated in the southern States ever since. Wheat was not suited to the climate of the South but rice was a suitable match and North and South Carolina developed a large industry based on rice production. Much of the work was performed by slaves captured and brought to America from areas of Africa where rice has been grown for centuries. The skills of the Africans experienced in rice production were highly prized and significantly advanced the technology in the Carolina's.
The disruption of the American Civil War and the loss of the slave market ended the rice production along the East coast, but rice production moved instead into Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. The US has been a major producer of rice ever since.
Due to the complex nature of rice production and the requirements for water for the paddies rice was not a part of the average small farm like corn or other grains may have been. With the advent of transportation however rice was available as a food source in local shops although most Americans preferred bread and noodles over rice.
Genetically modified rice programs have been started and several have been approved for use in the US, however none have been commercialized. There are a number of reasons for creating mutant rice however the main emphasis seems to be to create herbicide resistant strains. A variety of rice known as Clearfield has been artificially mutated by growing it in an environment known to enhance mutations. Since the Clearfield strain was developed by crossing mutant strains with natural strains it's not officially considered a GM plant.
In an unfortunate episode for the Bayer corporation one of its GM varieties somehow got loose in the wild and contaminated an estimated 30 percent of US rice production and 11,000 farmers. The variety, LibertyLink 601, was not approved except for experimentation and Bayer had to pay 750 million dollars in compensation for the lost harvest. How the variety got loose has never been discovered.
Millet is one of the oldest, maybe THE oldest, of the domesticated grasses. Millet predates the use of rice in China and since it can grow in colder and dryer climates was and still is a staple on northern China.
Millet grows and matures quickly so is well suited for short growing seasons. Millet is not just a few varieties that are the descendants of a single parent plant. There are thousands of millet varieties that grow all over the world.
The most common varieties grown for human food are broomhead, common, and foxtail. Foxtail is named as such because the seed head looks like a foxtail. Broomhead is also named based on the appearance of the seed head.
Although Millet is used worldwide it has found little acceptance in the United States where it is typically used as birdseed.
Due to the lack of popularity in developed countries there has only been minimal efforts to create GMO varieties.
According to Loren Cordain, Ph.D, founder of the Paleo Diet movement, millet, if eaten at all, should be eaten sparingly. Millet has been shown to interfere with Iodine metabolism and can contribute to the disease Goiter (swelling of the thyroid gland in the neck) due to Iodine deficiency.
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Updated : 05/01/2017 20:06:01
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